Jon and I had another excellent day with our friends at the Uncommon Schools charter network in Newark last week. It was particularly gratifying to see how deeply the Uncommon middle school team has embedded the 4QM and, in particular, storytelling into their planning and teaching. Uncommon History teachers in the middle grades now charge their students to demonstrate knowledge in a way that makes sense to *them*: “Tell the story of…” That’s a lesson objective that a fifth grader can relate to. 

I’m confident that’s true because we saw visual evidence. At a previous meeting, we reviewed footage of a brilliant fifth-grade teacher leading her students in a collaborative exercise that required them to sort four name cards into proper chronological order and to justify their choices. The students did so with garrulous energy. My favorite moment was when a boy named Maurice pointed out to his teammates that John Locke *had* to have come before Thomas Jefferson, because Jefferson had used his ideas when writing the Declaration of Independence. Fifth grade, and already tracking Enlightenment ideas in history. 

One thing I noticed at our breakout sessions, though, got me wondering. In the morning, we’d focused on Question One, and in particular on how to get students talking and thinking in response to historical narrative — like they did in the video of Maurice’s class, but at all grade levels. The charge for our breakout groups was to redesign the opening lesson of a cycle or unit so as to make it hook students and get them engaged in questioning and conversation, or, as the Uncommon folks like to say, to set them up to spar with a story. So far, so good. 

I worked mostly with two US History high school teachers. We focused on a cycle on the Mexican American War. We started with a lesson on the topic already written by one of the Uncommon planners (also a teacher, as is everyone on the planning team). After sparring ourselves over where to start and end the story, the other team member suggested that we define an essential question to help us decide. That gave me pause. 

Now, figuring out where your story begins and ends is definitely “essential,” and our decisions about those endpoints must clearly reflect our understanding of what the story is about and what kind of thinking we want our students to do about it. On the other hand, we 4QM people don’t talk about “Essential Questions” anymore, for very good reasons. If you want to teach students to ask and answer discipline-specific questions in a thoughtful, coherent way, you need to teach them how to identify question types pertinent to our field. We contend that there are four of them. What the old EQ did was to encourage teachers to conjure a generically debatable question and tack it onto a predigested unit. It identified no specific thinking skills. Very, very few teachers could give a coherent account of how they arrived at their essential question. The impact on students was, so far as we could tell, negligible. 

There are four essential questions in History. We’ve numbered them for easy reference. I wanted to say that in response to our teammate’s recommendation, but I didn’t. (I’m the gentle one. Jon’s the efficient one.) I let the conversation play out for a bit. The original planner and the EQ recommender batted around ideas for a few minutes. Then I suggested that we abandon the enterprise and return to our original charge: design a lesson that tells students a compelling and engaging story, and then cook up some ways to get them talking about it. 

In our small group, our essential question was clear. It was a Question One: What happened? Until we had the story down, any attempt to abstract from it was likely to be barren. In fact, the “Essential Question” conversation added nothing memorable or notable to our conversation. Of course, once we completed our planning process, our Q3s (Why then and there?) and Q4s (What do we think about that?) would end up looking a lot like what typically passes for EQs. But the point of getting the story down first — of answering Q1 first — is that embedding broad, debatable questions in a story makes them more meaningful and actually answerable for students. The helicoptered EQ is almost always either trivial or unanswerable without narrative context. Hence it’s systematic failure in practice. 

So why is the EQ such a powerful temptation? The tool doesn’t work very well, but people reach for it repeatedly. How come? Though it sounds immodest, part of the problem is that there isn’t, besides 4QM, much of an obvious alternative. But that explanation doesn’t work for this particular group. Everyone in the room had been trained, directly or indirectly, in the 4QM. 

But it turns out that planning the 4QM way is fairly arduous, in two ways. First, our method for designing curriculum is a discipline. It requires both training and practice. The steps are easy enough to enumerate — create a storyboard, find Q2 opportunities in the story, identify Q3s and Q4s, revise. But that summary is deceptive. Each of those steps requires lots of decision making and, well, thinking. “Create a storyboard” means defining the beginning and end of the story you want your students to learn, narrowing down to the key actors and events, and chunking and sequencing in a way adds up to a coherent story. If you don’t know your story well, or haven’t thought through the dynamics it contains very deeply, this turns out to be a difficult exercise. And that just gets you started — three more questions to go, then revision. Then you still have documents to find, edit, and scaffold, activities to plan, and lots, lots more. 

Learning a discipline is hard. Thinking constantly is hard. The human brain is poorly designed for both operations. Mine is, at any rate. Nonetheless, teaching well requires disciplined thinking. Learning well requires it as well. We can settle for “Essential Questions” that aren’t actually essential. To their credit, the Uncommon people don’t settle. That doesn’t make the work any easier…