Rethinking the Approach to Teaching Causation In the History Classroom, pp. 2 of 10

Research evidence from other studies also showed that students struggled with effective causal reasoning. For example, they were likely to view causation as mono-causal instead of an inter-twining of complex causal factors, or were predisposed to seeing causes as being the facts themselves (Haydn, et al, 2015: 146). Although the “analytic imperative of a causation question was clear” to teachers (Counsell, 2011: 109), research evidence seemed to suggest conceptual difficulties on the part of students when handling aspects related to causality. A few key factors:

  1. students’ inability to harness in-depth knowledge and use of historical context for effective causal explanation (Chapman and Facey, 2009);
  2. influence of scientific and mathematical modes of explanation affecting students’ concept of causality in history (Shemilt, 1980);
  3. complexity in the language of causation (Woodcock, 2005; 2011) and differing children’s “starting points” about explanation that inhibited their understanding (Lee, 2001).

In addition, the issues, concepts and vocabularies that undergirded discussions and explanations of causation proved equally complex. As Lee (1978) aptly postulated, causal explanation in history required attention to both detail and generality of events (that may account for the “set of initial conditions” prior to the event), as well as the consideration of “past human action” (1978: 73) (that may have caused the event). Therefore, History, as the “study of change and development of human affairs over time”, required the “identification and examination of causal connections between both actions and events” (Thompson, 1984: 177-8). Collectively, these contributed to the apparent conceptual difficulties many students encountered when making sense of causal relationships in history.

Causality is a difficult concept for students to grasp, and this can often be seen (or is manifested) in their writing. So what are some common mistakes students are likely to make when constructing causal explanations? Apart from incorporating irrelevant material in their essays, Chapman and Woodcock (2006: 17) highlighted some key mistakes students frequently made when constructing causal explanations. These included listing causes that go unexplained, discussing causes without showing understanding of the events that they were studying, and discussing outcomes as though they were “fixed” without considering possibilities or probabilities.

Table 1 shows a student’s response (Student B) in my study to a question on the fairness of the Treaty of Versailles. The student had described the unhappiness of the Germans towards the Treaty without first explaining how these individual events, for example, the near-complete destruction of Northern French soil had resulted in French resentment, thus creating fertile conditions for a vengeful French team at the Paris Peace Conferences. This had ensured a largely punitive outcome in the form of the Treaty of Versailles for the Germans. In this instance, the student had merely used these events without establishing a link with claims of fairness asserted by different parties for the Treaty of Versailles. The way the student viewed the perceived fairness is akin to a “one-way street of knock-on causes and effects” (p. 46). This idea appeared consistent with Level 3 responses in Lee and Shemilt’s (2009) progression model for causal explanation. By not establishing which factors or the respective roles they played in influencing the outcome of the Treaty, the student appeared unable to use these factors to discuss which factors had had a greater impact in   determining the outcome for the Treaty of Versailles.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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