Using Weighted Hinge Questions (WHQs) to Assess Students’ Causal Understanding, pp. 6 of 10

Option (b) reflects a causal explanation in terms of agents and actions (Level 2). Although students in this level may use the language of causation, they tend to ascribe agency to “impersonal factors and events” (Lee & Shemilt, 2009, p. 44). For instance, a student may claim that the 1947 announcement of the Marshall Plan caused the Cold War, reflecting how, to these students, ‘“events” are equated with “actions” and “intentions” are thought to shape “outcomes”’ (Lee & Shemilt, 2009, p. 44). To shift students away from focusing so heavily on agency-based explanations, the teacher could ask iterative “why” questions that inquire about the motivations behind such actions and uncover the underlying reasons contributing to the key event in the new topic. These questions include: “Why [did] things turn out differently from what anybody… want[ed]? Why [were] intended outcomes accompanied by so many unintended ones?” (Lee & Shemilt, 2009, p. 44).

Students who choose Option (c) are likely to conceive the present as the product of the past, but see history as “a one-way street of over-determined landmarks on the route from ‘then’ to ‘now’” (Lee & Shemilt, 2009, p. 45). This conception reflects these students’ focus on causal chains that determine the sequence of events leading to Event X (Level 3). To build on students’ current understanding, the teacher could discuss the multi-faceted and variable implications of each event in the new topic to highlight that each subsequent event is not an inevitable outcome of the previous event. Furthermore, the teacher could use guiding questions to encourage students to consider the complex inter-linkages between various events with other circumstances and historical agents.

Option (d) would likely be selected by students who consider explanations to be based on conditions for actual and possible events (Level 4). From their perspective, the past is determined “since prevailing ‘conditions’ permitted the occurrence” of Event X, but “not over-determined” because the same conditions also allowed the occurrence of Event Y, which “did not but could have occurred” (Lee & Shemilt, 2009, p. 46). This marks a watershed in students’ understanding of causation. To advance their understanding beyond Level 4, the teacher could guide students to think more deeply about the agents that triggered the Event X in the new topic by asking if the conditions alone suffice in causing that event to occur. Additionally, the teacher could prompt students to consider potential triggers prior to the actual trigger and why Event X did not occur earlier.

Students who choose Option (e) reflect a sophisticated level of understanding and are likely to view causal explanations in terms of historical contexts as well as conditions (Level 5). Only when students already recognize that the inter-linkages between circumstances and actions are crucial in explaining Event X’s occurrence should the teacher adopt the conventional approach of discussing each factor chronologically as presented in the textbook and provide opportunities for students to share their understanding of these inter-linkages.

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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