Introducing Causation in AP World History

One of the things I appreciate about either taking on a new course or moving to a new school is how it forces you to reflect on and re-evaluate things that have become routine. Routine is easy and comfortable, but growth demands more.

Part of my focus at the start of a new year in a new school has been around building reputation with students; being a new teacher at the school means no coasting. Luckily, the energy this gives me for planning, along with great collaboration, led to my first “teacher high” of the school year. Such moments are based as much around the personality of the class and the rapport students have with each other, but I was excited enough to post the lesson idea and my thinking around it.

The Class: AP World History Modern

The Content: Topic 1.1 – Developments in East Asia

I like to introduce skills as early as possible alongside content where they easily apply. At this point I had already introduced Continuity and Change over Time as well as Comparison in a Unit 0 lesson on pre-1200 religious and cultural traditions. I did not want to wait too long before getting to causation, and the Song Dynasty gave me the opportunity.

In the past, I had done a causation web and used the web to teach the guideposts of causation from the book The Big Six. However, I wanted a different activity that was more engaging and more easily connected to the skill of argumentation. Here is what I ended up with.

Step 1: Reading Quiz

I started with this because students had been assigned a section of Ways of the World the previous class. (By the way, the 4th edition of Ways of the World is really good) I prefer doing content at home and skill-building in class. The short, five question reading quiz just provides some accountability for the reading. I also like to write the questions in a way that emphasizes particular details or topics that will be important to class that day. Nothing unique here.

Step 2: Brain Dump

One of the earliest trainings I did as a teacher was on building/accessing background knowledge. I frequently like to find ways to integrate some type of brainstorming at the start of lessons to find entry points for students.

I wanted my main entry-point into the Song to be thematic as these themes would help give me an example of building complex arguments with good claim/counterclaim tension at the end of the lesson. So, I did a quick, timed brain-dump to get students jotting down anything that came to mind about the topic from the reading or previous classes/experiences.

Step 3: Paired Arguments

I randomly assigned pairs of students one of the achievements and asked them to craft an argument about why this achievement deserves to be considered the most significant to come out of the Song Dynasty. It’s a quick and fun way to see how students naturally approach argumentation. After I hear some of their conversations and arguments, we can create a list of strategies that they used to prioritize causes or support their claim.

Students recognized that they were doing some of the following things:

  1. Missing/Including a counterclaim
  2. Making causation arguments based on scale of effects
  3. Prioritizing causes based on themes
  4. Making connections to other regions and time periods
  5. Thinking about causation as a “web” of many connections

My purpose was to get a discussion going about argument quality as it relates to causation. The list we came up with will be used in the next step. Parts of the list also ended up previewing some of the guideposts for causation.

Step 4: Bracket Challenge

I asked my pairs to each do a bracket style competition between the 16 “achievements” on the previous slide. I specifically asked them to use the list we created about strong arguments for these head-to-head conversations. In many of the pairs, this helped get students thinking about counterclaims and the concept of arguing against something as well as for something.

Many students also found themselves in comical positions where they wondered how a particular achievement made it so far into the bracket. One pair did end up having Champa Rice as the champion. I just made sure they all understood the process was the important part here, not the outcome. After all, one of the guideposts of causation is the existence of multiple causes and effects. Its too simplistic to say one single achievement is the hands-down winner of significance.

Step 5: Guideposts and Discussion

These guideposts were taken from the book The Big Six, by Peter Seixas. I have referenced this in previous posts; it has become the core of my philosophical approach to instructing historical thinking. Thankfully, my students were so engaged in the previous steps that it was easy to make connections between these guideposts and things they had already discussed. The guideposts for all the various historical thinking skills will soon be high-quality color posters gracing my classroom walls.

Step 6: Thesis Writing

I love thesis writing as an exit-ticket. It is a skill that I want to introduce early and often and can be a great way to gauge student thinking on the topic at hand. I start with fairly high expectations for my thesis statements with the hardest part being the framework for analysis. Not every thesis ends up having this, but I use the concept of a framework for analysis as a way of creating argumentative tension between the claim and counterclaim. Themes provided a great way to do this for this lesson. However, other frameworks I like are 1) direct vs. indirect causes 2) role of the individual/group vs. historical conditions 3) internal vs. external or 4) point of view. The selected framework is highly dependent on the content, question, and skill.

This lesson did not cover everything in Topic 1.1. For homework, students were asked to read and annotate some primary sources related to the diffusion of China’s culture throughout East Asia during the Song period. The second day of the lesson covered this content while introducing students to primary source analysis and HIPP, my sourcing acronym of choice.

I liked this activity structure and will probably return to a bracket style activity in a later unit. Although there are plenty of variations in how this could be done I was happy with how it introduced skills such as causation, argumentation, and thesis writing. PPT file is linked below if you want a copy of it. I also linked the primary sources I assigned for homework on Chinese cultural diffusion. The text sources both came from the Asia for Educators website by Colombia University. The images were pulled from random resource books to get students thinking about some other examples of diffusion in preparation for the full lesson.

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