There are a bunch of ways a history lesson can go wrong. One way is deceptive, and perniciously common: students are “engaged” in an activity that they “enjoy.” I don’t mean to sound like a grouch, but so what? The money question is: what are students thinking about? Even better: what are they *learning* to think about? If those are hard questions to answer, then the lesson, however engaging and enjoyable, is a failure. The point, after all, is to teach our students how to think well about the human world. 

Good history teachers match engaging activities to meaningful questions. Great ones do so consistently and transparently, in a sequential, scaffolded, and artful way. Our 4QM project has been all about helping history teachers to identify the meaningful questions that drive great history teaching and matching those questions to engaging activities. We’ve tried to help new teachers get good and good ones to become great. 

Hot Storytelling

Though we’ve got Four Questions, we actually just have two ideas. The first is a frequent topic in this blog space: Story first! We’ve said a lot, here and elsewhere, about how to tell great stories and how to teach students to tell great stories. For what it’s worth, clients, colleagues, and our workshop visitors almost all adopt storyboards readily once they practice using them with us. I take that as evidence of the successful transmission of our first idea. 

Storytelling is fun and engaging. Framing a dramatic story to launch a unit or lesson — advice we give all the time — is a way to come in hot. When you hear (or tell) a good story, your brain will almost irresistibly try to complete the thought: What happened next? That’s why storytelling is engaging. 

But our charge is not just to engage our students. Once we’ve hooked them with a story, our job is to teach them to think about it in skillful ways. We do that by teaching them how to interrogate a story systematically. We tell a story, then we take it apart. That requires us to turn down the temperature. 

Cool Thinking

A story that fits a pattern we already know — rags-to-riches or Cinderella, heroic triumph or rise-and-fall — should raise our suspicions. For sure, we want our students not just to engage with stories, but to exercise some skillful skepticism on them. Start with some obvious interrogatives in the Question One family, like, Is this story true? Are our sources reliable? How do we know we’ve got enough of the story to see how one thing actually led to another? Is the shape of the narrative a good account of the action or a procrustean bed…? 

Asking those questions cools things down, for sure. Question Two, which asks students to dig into an actor’s thinking, is somewhere between luke and warm. Thinking like someone else, trying to plumb their motivations and unearth their assumptions, gives us contact with another mind. That’s human warmth, done well. But answering Question Two, What were they thinking?, also requires cool consideration of sources and ideas that may be quite different — even jarringly so — from our own. That’s cooler than a story. 

Question Three is cold. As we step back from the actors’ consciousness and consider the structures that conditioned their choices, we substitute “factors” for “actors.” What feels like human drama in the story can feel like icy dissection when we ask and answer, Why then and there? 

Question Four is most challenging for getting the temperature right. Judgment typically starts hot. When we ask students to make judgments about their forebears, they are typically eager to do so. In hindsight, we may see things the people we study missed. We want them to have done better. We wish they’d left us a better world. 

On the other hand, if we’ve done a good job with the first three questions, we should see our own situation with greater clarity and complexity. Complexity — understanding how our choices are conditioned by ideas and structures that we inherit rather than invent — can be an ice bath for those who first encounter it. A simpler, more Manichean world, with good people and bad people fighting it out, gets us much hotter under the collar. When we learn that very little human action reduces to that simplicity, we cool off. And judgment, the payoff, is, in the end, a dish best served cold.

Typically, our temperature goes down as we engage more regularly and proficiently in systematic thinking. We tell stories to heat the room. As you progress through the questions, and teach your students to do so, you should expect the temperature in the room to cool. That’s okay. Seeing more and thinking about it clearly is a refined pleasure. We want our students to learn to enjoy it. We want them to see that taking a story apart can be just as engaging — more, actually — than just telling it.