Teaching Multiple Causation

My wife and I just finished the process of our move to Shanghai. So, with that done, I can return to this blog to post about my favorite skill to teach: Multiple Causation. It’s been a longer than expected hiatus, but I doubt it matters very much given the fact that readers are essentially still at zero.

I want to organize some thoughts today on how I have been teaching multiple causation both in terms of my philosophical approach and the logistics of working within a standards-based grading system.

I begin with three Enduring Understandings related to the skill. I consider these to be the most important for students to understand.

  1. Historical changes are driven by multiple causes that have multiple consequences.
  2. Causes vary in influence and significance.
  3. Events result from the interplay between historical actors and historical conditions.

There are two other thoughts included in Peter Seixas’ work:

  • Historical actors cannot predict every outcome and so there are always a variety of unintended consequences.
  • Historical events are not inevitable.

I prefer to start with the first three as the foundation of my lessons. The other two are worked in for complexity and usually provide the enrichment possibilities for advanced students. Of course, this depends on the age and course being taught.

Most teachers, textbooks, and resources have mastered the first enduring understanding. Thousands upon thousands of students have been tasked with short-answer questions that ask them to “analyze the causes of….” to which they respond with a list of various factors that impacted the event under investigation. Or, students have been asked to write a thesis statement that “analyzes the causes of….” and produce something similar to “World War One was caused by…..” followed by a list of factors pulled from the reading or lecture. While this is important, it only scratches the surface of the skill.

I like to address the second two enduring understandings by including what I term “frameworks of analysis.” Our department put these into our grading rubrics and, for most high school courses, required their use for scores that show proficiency. The framework of analysis is neither new nor revolutionary, it is simply a way to instruct students to prioritize causes and consequences. Common ones many teachers use include:

  1. Direct vs. Indirect / Short vs. Long-term
  2. Historical Actors vs. Historical Conditions
  3. Point-of-View
  4. Historical Themes

Any of these can be turned into thinking scaffolds for in-class lessons that encourage students to actually analyze causes instead of listing them. In a thesis statement, the inclusion of one of these can be evidence of complexity and creates argumentative tension between competing claims.

Of these frameworks, my favorite to teach (and arguably the most important) is historical actors vs. historical conditions. The National Center for History in Schools rephrases these categories a bit. They refer to them as 1) The role of the individual 2) The role of ideas and beliefs 3) the role of the irrational and chance. Although still valuable, I prefer the push-and-pull between historical actors and historical conditions. In my experience, students find ideas and beliefs significantly more limiting than historical conditions and usually reduce the role of chance to “what if” thoughts that get them off track.

Within our discussions and activities I try to get students to unpack a couple of different ideas related to the interplay between historical actors and historical conditions.

  1. I want students to think about historical causation as a web instead of a sequence. Every historical actor makes decisions based on the historical context that they exist in, but also, through their actions, may cause a change to the conditions around them.
  2. If historical actors are unable to overcome the historical conditions they find themselves in, what does this say about the power of historical conditions and the limits of human agency. Of course, the reverse of this thought is also valid.
  3. Why does one human action have a larger impact than another human action? Or, how can we use historical conditions to understand the reality of varying influence.
  4. At any moment in history, does the power of individual agency or historical systems seem a more powerful driver of events and developments?
  5. How do the other frameworks of analysis affect the interplay between historical actors and historical conditions.

Note: With more advanced students, these categories provide a fun way to introduce historiography.

Many of my guiding questions and discussion activities are designed to get students thinking about these questions and thoughts. Ultimately I want them to apply them to other skills, particularly to argumentation. This takes a bit more time to scaffold, but produces better thinking than front-loading content and getting students to list causes or prioritize them. If students are going to prioritize causes they need a way to do it. Frameworks of analysis provide that way. Early in my career I was guilty of saying I was teaching analysis without actually doing it. This is one of the ways I have tried to remedy that problem.

As the image below shows, these scaffolds can be visually simple. However, the discussions and thinking behind them are where the value lies. Teachers do not usually have trouble making or finding various graphic organizers. Far more important is how they are used in class to drive thinking, investigation, and argumentation.

Graphic organizer for teaching Human Actors vs. Historical Conditions – created by a colleague.

Activity / Scaffold Ideas

Some other activities I have had success with include:

  1. Introducing the various frameworks of analysis and asking students to categorize causes and explain their choices. I also like other pair/group thinking activities that ask students to do various tasks with score 2.0 processes. This introduced the thinking and philosophy behind the standard. Often these activities use graphic organizers and pre-prepared materials. Of course, students do best with these after having some content instruction.
  2. Have students create a causation web using pre-prepared cards that have various events, developments, conditions, and human actions on them. These webs can then be analyzed with students writing arguments from them. I like using colors to differentiate categories or types of causes and also have students look for “hubs” of causation which suggest greater influence. There are dozens of tangible ways for students to create and work with these webs that align to the enduring understandings. This is my main strategy for scaffolding this standard with my 9th graders, and is a bit more hands on and manipulative than generic graphic organizers.
  3. Thesis writing practice that includes one of the framework of analyses. I do this a lot in AP World to support DBQ writing.
  4. “What If?” projects. I did this in my US History class, which was predominantly seniors. What if? and counterfactual thinking is a fun way of instructing the idea that history is not inevitable. It also connects to many other thinking skills.

SBG Resources

One of the early challenges we had was how to vertically align these expectations across grade level. Although it’s easy to find activity ideas for different grade levels, much of the writing on historical thinking skills is from a generic secondary or high school level. The chart below was our first attempt at what this might look like within a curriculum.

The NCHS 3.3 was simply our designation for this skill standard. The wording of the standard itself comes directly from the NCHS material. However, we added some of the thinking from The Big Six.

Each of these grade level expectations was the minimum to earn a score of 3.0, which was considered proficient. An average of 3.0 for a course would equate to a 90% A- on a traditional grading scale. We followed the conversion scales recommended by one of the Marzano books.

In practice, teachers could pull from earlier grade levels if a student joined who had gaps in understanding. Likewise, a teacher could pull from grade-levels above their for score 4.0 (enrichment) opportunities. A score of 4.0 would convert to a perfect grade of 100% and so was much preferred. In a future post I will get into the difficulties we had around defining score 3.0 and 4.0 and putting it into practice. It’s no where near a perfect system.

Although we never finished it, one of the department ideas was a joint file of scaffolds, lessons, and activities to serve as a “backpack” to support teachers who need additional resources. The nature of some international schools, particularly in the age of COVID, is that turnover can be high, and therefore, institutional memory needs to be protected.

A student-friendly rubric for our 9th grade course.

Above, is the student-friendly rubric that I used for the 9th grade social studies course. I preferred to give these to students, as opposed to proficiency scales, simply because these were easier for them to understand. Teaching a student to use a proficiency scale can be done, but takes work. Heck, teaching a teacher to use a proficiency scale can be a lot of work…

I doubt all of these thoughts are new. However, as we worked through how to improve our instruction of historical thinking within an SBG system we found some success. I hope something here may be useful. I hope to find a way to post and unpack more complete lessons that show some of the scaffolding we did in more detail.

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