Posted by: crudbasher | September 30, 2011

THE Five Questions

(cc) joiseyshowaa

I’m going on vacation next week (without Internet) so will be taking a break from blogging during that time.

This is probably a good thing. Periodically we need to slow down and focus on other things. 🙂

I did have a thought earlier in the week that I wanted to lay out for you, the reader.


The five questions you typically have to answer about something are Who, What, Where, When, and Why. So which ones are we addressing in your typical public school? I think it’s the first four. We are very good at drilling someone to remember the facts about an event.

For example, John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln at the Ford Theater, April 15, 1865. I can tell you this and test you on it pretty easily.

So here is the unanswered question – Why did he do this? See this is where we run into trouble because it’s not an easy question to answer. To do that you have to presume to know the intent behind a person’s actions. There are several different stories as well so which one do you teach?

The real problem is, even if you lay out a case for why, it won’t really click with your students unless they can derive some of the information themselves. A better way would be to have your students look up the details and put them into a collaborative pool of information. Then, when they come to class you can discuss the possible reasons why. Let students posit ideas and have others support or disprove the thesis based on the knowledge gained.

This kind of learning is scary to most school systems because it’s hard to quantify and it’s hard to budget for. What if you need an hour to discuss it? What if you stray off into other interesting topics? How can you measure it with a standardized test? See, that’s the main problem. There is no right or wrong answer.

Interesting problem isn’t it? If anyone would like to start a conversation in the comments, I’ll check in on October 10.


  1. I think what you are proposing is probably rather standard pedagogy, isn’t it? When I was in high school in the 1980s, the first thing we learned was that history wasn’t about memorizing names and dates. We had to write a term paper in 10th grade (which many students today don’t do until college). The title had to include the word “why” or the word “how.” The teaching and learning were about processes and reasons. At the school I am at now doing teacher training, I have witnessed the “problemetizing” approach over and over again (although I have seen the “teach one narrative as undisputed fact” approach as well). In the formal teacher training I am going through, that is one of the core messages we as future teachers are being taught – teach the problem, go to the ambiguity. My “back then” story was from the U.S., but my “now” story is preparing for a teaching career in Germany. Are things so different now in the U.S.? I know some state politicians occasionally move to have “only the facts” taught in history in school, but aren’t they routinely shouted down by educators who know better?

    • Hi Mark, yes I suppose I am talking about pedagogy. I think the question I am try to get at here is are we dropping that last part from curriculum? It seems to be the hardest part and it’s not as easy to measure with standardized testing. Facts are easy to assess. I too remember essays with why and how in them. I suppose another question is: can you be wrong with an essay like that? Isn’t that inviting a conjecture? I’d be interested in hearing others on this topic. You raise some great points, thanks very much for contributing!!

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