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The Problem of Ambiguous Questions in History Classes

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “The High Stakes of Getting the Question Right” by Gary Shiffman in 4QMTeaching, November 18, 2018, read online
In this article in 4QMTeaching, Massachusetts high-school curriculum coordinator Gary Shiffman describes how a fellow teacher’s students froze when given this essay prompt: What’s the most important cause of the American Civil War? (Students also got an article describing five causes of the war and were asked to pick one and defend it in their essays.) Why were the students stymied?
Shiffman says it’s because the essay prompt was an ambiguous mix of different question types, making it virtually impossible to write about it in a coherent way. He and his colleague Jon Bassett believe there are four types of history questions (hence their Four Question Method approach):
• What happened? (narration) – for example, What were the major events that led to the American Civil War?
• What were people thinking? (interpretation) – What were the protagonists thinking on the eve of the War?
• Why then and there? (explanation) – What changes in economics, politics, and demography made a violent constitutional crisis more likely in the middle of the 1800s rather than earlier or later?
• What do we think about that? (judgment) – Who is to blame for the American Civil War?
The teacher’s question – What’s the most important cause of the American Civil War? – combined narration (the story of events leading to the war), interpretation (people’s thought processes), and a request to rank-order causes. Students who took the prompt seriously “would need to complete a number of challenging intellectual tasks,” says Shiffman. “They would need to distinguish narration and interpretation from causal explanation. Then they would need to compare factors. Then they’d have to rank them in order of importance. The first two tasks are quite difficult. The third is impossible.” That’s why students’ brains froze: the prompt made no sense to them.
Some students fake their way through ambiguous questions by substituting an easier question – for example, writing a narrative of events leading to the Civil War. “If it’s a good story – a proficient narrative – we may give them a good grade,” says Shiffman. “If not, we tell them they need to make an argument. If they do, it’s typically not a great one, or even a coherent one. But since our ‘causes of X’ prompts don’t compute for us either, we’re likely to substitute right back. Not having answered the question doesn’t mean you can’t get an ‘A’.”
In this case, students weren’t adept at fakery, and the teacher realized that her question was the problem. The next day, she told students she’d framed the question poorly and asked them to pick a cause and say how it contributed to increasing tension between North and South (narrative). It wasn’t the greatest prompt in the world, but it was clear and students started writing.
Shiffman’s advice: “Take your questions seriously. If you can’t tell which of the Four Questions you’re asking, assume you’re not clear yet. Whatever question you ask, try answering it yourself, conscientiously, before you ask your students to try it. The stakes are high.”

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