AP World & Causation: Round 2

Image: King Phillip II of France arrives in the eastern Mediterranean during the Crusades

The Class: AP World History Modern

The Content: Topic 1.6 – Developments in Europe

My goal in AP World is to introduce all of the various historical thinking skills that students will need in the first unit. Starting the skills early creates opportunities for engaging lessons with hands-on practice instead of lecture or content focused activities. This also establishes the habits of historical thinking early so that students can recognize how this course is going to be different from other history courses they might have taken. Alas, there is no way to directly teach all of the content that is referenced in the curriculum. I prefer to make my own “courageous deletions” and double-down on skills.

Myself and the other AP World teacher divided Topic 1.6 into two lessons. The first was focused around the skill of CCOT while unpacking the characteristics of the medieval world. The second, and the lesson this post is unpacking, was designed around causation and the Crusades.

When students are making historical arguments they need tools that help them think through vast quantities of content quickly and provide a scaffold for complexity. I like to use two different “Frameworks for Analysis” to help them do this, one for causes and one for effects. These are just two of the many frameworks I introduce to students over the course of the year. Below are the activities I used to introduce each framework.

Analyzing Multiple Causes:

The main purpose of this framework is to get students to think about the concepts of individual agency and historical conditions. The category of groups serves to provide some complexity about the way in which humans make decisions or take actions. This triangle activity comes from the book, The Big Six. It can be easily applied to nearly any content that you are teaching.

If I had to summarize the main idea that I wanted students get out of this activity, its that individuals make decisions based on the conditions or social forces they find themselves in and these individual decisions inform or influence the actions of groups. As both individuals and groups take actions they can change the social forces or historical conditions that will define future developments and future actions. It creates a circle of impact that helps students breakdown why things happen as well as providing a framework for prioritizing causes. This the essence of a skills-based approach.

Put into more concrete terms with the Crusades, this gets students to balance the actions of Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, the role of peasants, knights, armies, or other groups than acted collectively for common cause, and historical conditions such as feudalism or deeply embedded tensions between the Catholic and Orthodox worlds. I selected a dozen causes to help students begin this activity and then added another dozen to see how the additions impacted their reasoning. Some of these were quite broad, such as “Distrust between the Byzantines and Crusaders,” and others were more specific, such as “Enrico Dandolo desired to weaken the Byzantines as Venice’s main trade rival.” Either way, students were encouraged to discuss the causes and how best to make sense of their significance. Good discussions always yield their own fruit.

In terms of the requirements of AP, this framework provides a quick and complex structure to help students develop historical arguments on nearly any topic. Other frameworks for causation that I use through the year are identity/point-of-view, short-term vs. long-term causes, and themes. Using any of these frameworks pushes student thinking towards complexity and prevents thesis statements such as “The Crusades were causes by religious tension and a desire for wealth and land.” Instead, students develop thesis statements like:

“Although individuals like Pope Urban II or Byzantine Emperor Alexius initiated the Crusades for their own motivations, the Crusades quickly grew beyond their control. Crusaders were driven by group mentalities based in desires for wealth, ambition, or salvation and historical conditions such as feudalism formed the foundation of political competition and violence that shaped both group motivations and the individual decisions of leaders.”

“Although historical conditions such as feudalism and rivalry within the Christian world are critical for contextualizing the Crusades, it was the individual desires for god, gold, and glory and the actions both Christian and Muslim leaders took to realize those desires that were the primary causes of Crusades.”

Admittedly these were two of the better thesis statements students submitted. Although neither is perfect, the value is in getting students writing arguments early and often and helping them scaffold complex historical thinking. As they learn more content, the skills pay greater dividends.

Analyzing Effects

Same as with the mini-activity on causes, the purpose in this second one is to provide a framework for analyzing the significance of effects. This one is simpler and more intuitive since long-term and short-term require little unpacking. The only thing students occasionally struggle with is recognizing that these categories are not as much about length of time, but degrees of closeness. An equally effective pair of terms could also be direct vs. indirect effects.

Students were able to pull a variety of effects from both the textbook and their reading notes. With a little reminder of the causation guideposts (re-posted below) students were well on their way to recognizing that short-term effects can be intended or unintended and those in turn spark longer-term effects. It can be easy to get lost in the web of causation that can quickly spiral out of control; a reminder of staying focused around significance as defined by the Key Concepts helped. Ultimately, students produced the thesis statements below.

“Although the Crusades caused a short-term increase in trade and cross-cultural interactions, their significance is based on their long-term impact on Europe. The Crusades led to urbanization in northern Italy and made possible the Renaissance, which would transform Europe far more than the Crusades themselves.”

“Although in the short-term the Crusades were a failure for Christian Europe as they lost all the lands gained in the First Crusade, in the long-run the Crusades established the patterns of trade, urbanization, political centralization, and intellectual growth that made the Renaissance and the rise of Europe possible.”

“Even though the Crusades directly impacted northern Italy the most through the rejuvenation of trade routes, they would eventually impact all of Europe as they sparked the beginning of the Renaissance with new learning, economic development, and new artistic traditions spreading outward over later centuries.”

All of these thesis statements are better than a traditional “The Crusades led to A, B, and C…” Not every student produced one like the three above, but with enough practice and enough models every student will get there. When paired with an informal explanation of the thesis statement, these give me great feedback about what students are learning and where they are in skill acquisition. After a month of constant thesis writing I can turn to other inspiration for quick formatives or exit-tickets.

Next…Contextualization and the Americas. (I often teach some topics out of numerical order.)

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