One of my favorite moments in any class is when a student interrupts the lesson (always politely) and asks, “Mr, Bassett, why are we doing this?”

In social studies there is a pretty broad consensus that students should do certain things. At the top of the list, if not the very top, is “read primary sources.” Unfortunately, it seems like most people who want students to read primary sources don’t have a very good idea of why they want that. And when we plan lessons around an activity rather than a clear learning goal, we end up with disjointed lessons that have a pretty weak answer to the student’s question of why we’re doing this.

We recently got an example of this kind of lesson planning in the 4QM Teaching email in-box, from a curriculum organization we subscribe to. There was a google slide deck dedicated to “Planning With Primary Sources,” which guided teachers through the steps to planning a lesson that uses a primary source document. The first step in the process is to find a “compelling question.” They included a helpful list that you can browse; examples include “To what extent should there be limits on the powers of leaders?” and “Who is responsible for securing world peace?” Once you’ve chosen your compelling question, the next step was to go to a standards document to choose a “content specification.” The slide after that offered some specific primary sources a teacher could choose to use in the lesson; there were about thirty or so, including Hammurabi’s Code and the Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III of 1793. Then, at slide number six, the teacher is asked to decide why students will read the primary source: to answer a compelling question, or to practice for a state examination. What follows are fifty more slides about how students could go about reading the primary source. 

This whole exercise struck me as a compelling example (pun intended) of backward thinking about lesson planning. It starts with questions that cannot be answered outside of a specific time and place (“Who is responsible for securing world peace?”), offers a list of primary sources that seem to have been chosen for their link-ability and lack of copyright protection, and devotes most of its energy to an enormous infrastructure around how to use them in class. I can hear it now: “Mr. Bassett, why are we doing this?”

At 4QM Teaching, we believe that learning goals should dictate pedagogy, not the other way around. We also believe that there are four possible learning goals in history/social studies classes. Students are always trying to find out what happened (Question One), what someone was thinking (Question Two), why something happened when and where it did (Question Three), or what we think about that (Question Four). And our mantra is “Story First!”, because kids don’t get interested in Questions Two, Three, or Four until they’ve answered Question One. 

Here’s how we might arrive at the choice to use one of the  primary sources mentioned above in a lesson: The Qianlong Emperor’s letter to George III. We’d start with a story. In the 1700s Great Britain became the world’s first industrial power, and built a massive navy that they used to project their economic might around the globe. They were especially interested in selling their manufactured products in China, which was then as now an enormous market and very tempting. They repeatedly asked for the right to trade freely in China, and were repeatedly refused. Eventually the British began selling opium (a highly addictive drug) in China, and in the early 1800s fought several wars to force the country open to foreign trade. Thus began the time period that the Chinese government today calls “the century of humiliation” — China’s one hundred years of domination by foreign powers. 

Part of this story is the Qianlong Emperor’s refusal to allow the British to trade in his Empire, which refusal was delivered in a letter to the British King George III in 1793. We know how the story ended, and it looks to us like the Emperor may have made a catastrophic blunder — wouldn’t he have been better off allowing the British to trade, and thus avoiding the opium wars that came almost fifty years later? We’re now primed and ready to dive into a Question Two: What was he thinking??

When we set up a lesson this way, students have a reason to care about the primary source we’ll give them to interpret. Maybe the Emperor’s “blunder” won’t seem so foolish once we understand the thinking behind it, or maybe it will seem even worse than we thought. Either way, we’ll have a much better understanding of events once we’ve taken the time to dig into the source and develop some historical empathy for the Emperor — once we’ve tried to see the world as he saw it in 1793. 

Primary source interpretation is our go-to pedagogy for answering Question Two. The documents and artifacts historical figures leave behind them are rich mines of data, and we’ve got a straightforward and effective way to lead students through the kind of thinking they need to do when they interpret them. 

The other three Questions have good pedagogy matches as well, although we like to emphasize that we’re pedagogical pragmatists, not rigid ideologues — teachers should use techniques that match their learning goals and their students. But wherever we end up in our planning, we should start by defining our Question. And remember, Story First! If you follow those rules, we’re much more likely to be ready when someone interrupts to ask, “Why are we doing this?”