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The Four Question Method: The Goal Is Understanding, Not Agreement
History and social science classrooms should be places of robust debate, but there is evidence that campus discourse in those subjects has become seriously constrained. Survey results from the most recent HxA campus expression survey show that a majority of college students are reluctant to discuss at least one controversial issue (i.e., politics, religion, race, sexual orientation, or gender). Some observers have identified the middle of the decade of the 2010s as a tipping point for increased social pressure on free speech on college campuses, and we have heard anecdotally from instructors at a number of undergraduate institutions that students today are much less willing to engage in robust debate on topics like reparations for AfricanAmericans than they were even 10 years ago.
Although we’re high school teachers by profession, we care deeply about history and social science teaching and learning on all levels. Our experience in classrooms from elementary school to graduate school has reinforced our conviction that the questions that define our discipline are the same no matter how old our students are. Together we’ve written a book that defines those questions and that we believe can help college instructors encourage viewpoint diversity: From Story to Judgment: The Four Question Method for Teaching and Learning Social Studies. In this post we’ll give a brief overview of the Four Question Method while explaining how it makes viewpoint diversity in the classroom easier to surface by clarifying questions and establishing the goal of achieving understanding rather than agreement.
The Four Questions
We start with a bold claim: Every history or social science question that requires a thoughtful and skillful answer is a variant of one of only four questions. Moreover, each of these four questions requires a different way of thinking to answer it. Lessons and discussions often go off the rails when we ask unclear questions or students attempt to answer one kind of question the wrong way. Instructors who understand the questions and plan around them can improve classroom discussion by clarifying what exactly is being discussed.
Here are the Four Questions, paired with their associated thinking skills:
- Question One: What happened? (Narration)
- Question Two: What were they thinking? (Interpretation)
- Question Three: Why then and there? (Explanation)
- Question Four: What do we think about that? (Judgment)
Question One: “What Happened?”
The questions are deliberately designed to go in order. We always start with Question One: What happened? This question seems prosaic, but it’s the crucial foundation for all subsequent questions. Getting it right is harder than it seems, especially for young people who haven’t had a lot of practice.
Responsible answers to Question One come in the form of a story. Narrating a historical story well means learning the facts (as far as we can), organizing them correctly, identifying the key actors in the story, and clearly defining the contrast between the beginning and the end. That’s a lot of intellectual work, and we do students a disservice when we rush it.
Answering Question One responsibly is crucial for viewpoint diversity, because it grounds all subsequent conversations in the narrative. Viewpoint diversity gets short-circuited in classrooms when we jump too quickly to the later questions. This is a common pedagogical error, because instructors often think that Questions Two, Three, and Four are more interesting or engaging than Question One. But the quality of our conversations diminishes, and the heat-to-light ratio in our classrooms increases, when we don’t take the time to make sure everyone knows the story that we’re going to be asking all those later questions about.
Most of the time our narratives themselves are not contested. In cases where the historical record is sparse, it can be difficult to answer Question One, and reasonable people can disagree about their answers, but most of the time we can agree on what happened: The 13 colonies rebelled against British rule. The Spanish conquered a large land empire in the Americas. China lost the Opium Wars. George Floyd died during an encounter with the police. Getting the story as clearly as we can, and learning to tell it well, sets us up for the next three questions.
Question Two: “What Were They Thinking?”
Once we know what happened, we’re ready to dive into the minds of some of the key players in the story and ask Question Two: What were they thinking? Answers to this question are usually more contested than answers to Question One. That’s because thinking is a complicated and variable process. It’s difficult to know what’s going on inside other people’s heads, and sometimes even our own. To answer Question Two responsibly, we have to practice the skill of interpretation. We examine artifacts people left behind (usually text documents of one kind or another) and the record of their actions and behaviors, and we try to understand how they justified their actions to themselves. Responsible interpretations must be supported by evidence, but that evidence is usually incomplete, and reasonable people often disagree about what the evidence means.
Our goal in answering Question Two is to understand the thinking of people who are not us, and often we’re trying to understand people we do not admire. But as we say in our book, “Interpretation means making claims about other people’s thinking that would make sense to them, even if we find their thinking to be illogical, offensive, or just plain wrong” (p. 83).
Being clear about this aspect of Question Two can be enormously energizing for classroom discussion and helpful for supporting viewpoint diversity. We’ve seen classes shut down when students mistakenly assume that studying the thinking of slave owners, or Nazis, or pro-life activists amounts to an endorsement of their ideas. And we’ve also seen students deepen their understanding of controversial figures and ideas when they engage seriously with Question Two. When students know that Question Two is different from Question Four (“What do we think about that?”), and when they know that they will have an opportunity to answer Question Four, they become much more willing and able to slow down their thinking and take seriously ideas that they don’t like.
Question Three: “Why Then and There?”
Questions One and Two engage us deeply with a particular story and particular people. Questions Three and Four ask us to pull back and generalize. Question Three uses the tools of social science to try to understand why certain events happened at certain times rather than earlier or later, or why they happened in certain places but not others. To help students and teachers understand how this question works, we use two catchphrases. The first one is, “Explain a change with a change and a difference with a difference.”
Consider the American Revolution. The 13 American colonies had been more or less happy with their imperial status for well over a century when a rapidly building conflict led to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. What underlying changes in colonial or British society might explain why the Declaration was issued in 1776, not 1676?
And, when the 13 colonies declared that they would no longer be ruled by Britain, their Canadian colonial neighbors made no such statement. What underlying differences between the 13 colonies and Canada might explain that difference?
Our second catchphrase for answering Question Three is “factors, not actors.” This reminds us that we’re not telling a specific story (that’s Question One) or explaining outcomes through the unique contributions of particular people (that’s Question Two). We’re looking for generalizable explanatory factors. Our ultimate goal with Question Three is for students to build a generalizable model about an interesting and recurring question. For example, historians (and contemporary analysts) often want to know under what conditions revolutions are likely to break out. Question Three thinking builds on a specific case we learn well and gives us the tools to answer a general social science question.
Question Three is answerable with data, so in principle there should be broad agreement on the answers. In reality, our data about historical events is usually incomplete or contested, so reasonable people often disagree about the answers. In terms of viewpoint diversity in the classroom, Question Three works by helping students understand that responsible answers to this type of question should be based on data, not on the preconceptions or desires we may bring to the question. Question Three is dispassionate and cold. We’re not asking if we approve or disapprove of what happened, or asking if it should have happened the way it did. We’re simply looking for patterns in the data that might be relevant to explaining why it did.
Because it is dispassionate, Question Three thinking can be especially useful in college classrooms, where students sometimes demand universal applicability of specific versions of equity, bias, and other concepts with little regard for local or historical context. Cooling off the criticism of people in the past to focus on “factors, not actors” helps broaden the conversation.
Question Four: “What Do We Think About That?”
Question Four is similar to Question Three because it also aims at generalization, but it is different because it is not dispassionate or cold—it’s often passionate and blazing hot.
Question Four is the last question for a reason. As noted above, we often like to rush to Question Four precisely because it is so hot, and even more so because social media trains us to privilege this question over others. But making judgments before we’ve explored the first three questions is a surefire way to increase polarization and decrease viewpoint diversity. If we don’t know much about a topic, we rely on our prejudices and assumptions to lead us. That can feel good, especially if our prejudices are strongly held and our assumptions make our opponents seem immoral. But it doesn’t help us to understand events or our opponents any better.
By contrast, taking the time to understand what happened, what the people involved were thinking, and what underlying factors influenced them provides depth and complexity to the story and people we are judging. That preparatory work also provides students with a common body of knowledge from which to discuss their judgments. All of this makes viewpoint diversity easier to surface in the classroom and less likely to cause intense polarization when it is expressed.
Question Four also helps viewpoint diversity by establishing a clear classroom goal: understanding one another, not convincing one another. A good Question Four discussion starts by asking for everyone’s initial judgments on an important decision (a classic from American history is “Should Truman have approved the use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”) and then asks all of us to examine our own thinking deeply. What values and beliefs do we hold that bring us to our judgments?
Conversations around Question Four are not debates, though they often sound like it as students stake out different positions, explain how they arrived at them, and sometimes change their minds. The question is phrased deliberately in the first-person plural, not because we expect everyone to have the same answer to the question but because we expect everyone to participate in the community conversation. At the end of a successful Question Four discussion, students can explain the nature of their disagreements and identify the underlying values and beliefs that lead different people to their different judgments.
A good Question Four class then asks everyone to test their thinking by trying to build a general statement of principle that they could apply to similar cases. For the case of Truman and the bomb, the general question might be “Under what conditions is it acceptable to deliberately incur civilian casualties in war?” The conversation can then proceed on sure philosophical grounds and applicable historical context.
Clarity Helps Diversity
Classroom conversations about controversial topics can go offtrack when participants talk past one another or address different questions without realizing it. The Four Question Method creates clarity about history and social science questions, which is a key step toward thoughtful and productive disagreement. From kindergarten through graduate school, students are always learning how to ask and answer questions. We hope that the clarity of the Four Question Method can make that process more productive for all of them.
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