‘It’s at least a 3, Miss!’ Thinking about the relative significance of causes with GCSE students 

This is one in a series of weekly blog posts in which I show how a journal article or book has inspired me to improve my teaching practice. Each post ends with a practical resource or activity. Today I show how an article by Buxton (2010) inspired me to try and improve my teaching of causation at GCSE. 

The historian E.H. Carr once wrote that:

The true historian, confronted with [a] list of causes of his own compiling, would feel a professional compulsion to reduce it; to order, to establish some hierarchy of causes which would fix their relation to one another, perhaps to decide which cause, or which category of causes, should be regarded ‘in the last resort’ or ‘in the final analysis’ (favourite phrases of historians) as the ultimate cause, the cause of all causes.

E.H. Carr would probably have counted himself rather lucky to have never met the historians in 11.E, whose professional compulsion when it comes to lists extends little beyond lists of excuses. ‘My printer broke’ appears with the highest cumulative frequency, although that doesn’t translate into ‘highest priority’. Sometimes I wish Year 11 would exercise more imagination in their excuse-construction.

The problem I find with lists is that they do little to encourage students to think about interactions between causes, and the different weights of causes. Appearing one after another on separate lines (or separate cards, if one was doing a card sort), students often start to see causes as separate,  discrete entities. I have written and presented about this before:

I had [unwittingly] been encouraging my pupils to see causes as ‘things’. A cause was seen as something fixed and pre-existing.

Causes as Things

Causes of an event are often much less detached and far more nebulous. As constructions of an historian’s making, they are inherently indeterminate and formless, being created or borrowed and then shaped and refined by an historian’s substantive knowledge and by their understanding of the nature of cause and consequence.

I reflected that presenting causes in a different way could encourage pupils to find new ways to think about the connections between, and relative significance of, the causes of an event. I decided that I needed a way of presenting the different causes of an event that does not imply separation.

I judged that this would be particularly important at GCSE level in our school, where our pupils are required by the exam board to show how causes combine to create an outcome. For a top mark, pupils are also required to make a judgement about what they believe to be the most important cause of an event. In my experience, students often do well when discussing a single cause; most of them use ‘Point-Evidence-Explain’  to clearly identify each cause and provide evidence to demonstrate how it led to the outcome. Fewer students are able to link causes together convincingly, however, or to weigh up which was, ‘in the final analysis’, the ultimate cause.

My reflections about the issues my students were facing with causation reminded me of the work of Ellen Buxton. Buxton is just one of several history teachers who have explored causes as ‘multi-causal webs containing triggers and long and medium term causes’, rather than one-dimensional lists. The particular focus of Buxton’s work is the causes of the French Revolution. Her article builds on Arthur Chapman’s story of the long-suffering Alphonse the Camel: from the point of the straw breaking the camel’s back, Chapman works backwards into medium and long-term causes and the interplay between them. Inspired by Chapman, Buxton introduces Alphonse’s disease-ridden cousin, Louis, and uses counter-factual reasoning and mathematical equations as a means of assessing the relative significance and particular combination of different factors that resulted in the French Revolution.

Buxton’s ingenious use of arithmetic involves weighting causes as numbers, which allows her pupils to play with ways of representing causal relationships:

I explained to the class that an historical argument has to tell me how all the different factors and conditions created the thing you are trying to explain – that thing is known (10). What is not known is how we arrived at 10. In our case, that is revolution. Not mild disquiet, quiet grumblings or even revolt, but revolution. There are lots of ways to get to 10 (cue flurry of hands giving imaginative ways of reaching 10) and there are lots of historians who argue that France reached 10 in different ways. Not 9, not 8 but 10. The task of the pupils was to use all the factors we had discussed, weighting each one with how far it got France to reaching 10.

Inspired by such a creative way of encouraging pupils to reflect on the relative significance of causes, I decided to build on Buxton’s clever use of arithmetic. I will not dwell on Buxton’s ingenious use of counter-factual reasoning to help her Year 8 students make decisions about their ‘most important cause’ (and I certainly don’t want to enter into a debate about whether counter-factual reasoning is a valid process – at least not here), but I do encourage you to read Buxton’s article if you haven’t already. You’ll either find yourself nodding along or grumbling into your coffee, which serves as an excellent reminder on where you stand on the ‘What if you took away…’ debate.

To return to my Year 11s, we were coming to the end of the rather tiresome process of not-handing-in essays on the November Revolution, and we were about to tackle the causes of Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War. Here was an opportunity to demonstrate how these causes were interdependent, multi-facted and amorphous, often sharing themes or timing that added weight to their significance. Here was an opportunity to move beyond causes as solid ‘things’. I began to think about how to present causes as more fluid than formed, more mixed than separate. This meant moving away from lists and towards something more integrated.

One morning in the shower (the only thinking space available in a house with a toddler and pre-schooler), a ‘Causal Paint-by-numbers’ idea struck, and I quickly came up with an example using the causes of the February Revolution:

Paint by Numbers

The premise behind Causal Paint-by-Numbers is simple, and builds directly upon Buxton’s work. Rather than each cause residing on a separate line or card, they are presented as different circles of paint upon a palette. Each paint splodge can be bigger or smaller according to the relative weight given to the cause. Furthermore, as paint is mixed upon a palette, causes can be mixed and connected on pupils’ palettes very easily. An individual cause can be combined (such as World War I in the example above) with multiple other causes. My hope was that pupils would start to see causes ‘bleeding’ into each other,  and it would allow me to ask pupils questions such as: which cause-colour can be found across most of the palette? Does this mean that this cause deserves a larger number in terms of weight? Is there a larger, ‘meta-cause’ that binds many of these smaller causes together? I was pleased that I could use a picture to represent the event (‘number 10’, with all causes added together to make 10), as it was a tidy way to remind pupils to show the examiner how the colours were used to paint the picture of revolution (or, in other words, how the causes led to the outcome).

Causal Paint-By-Numbers is far from revolutionary, and builds directly from the work of Buxton. Yet I am finding it useful as a five-minute thinking activity, and have found that, for some pupils, it has unlocked understanding about how causes combine or what it means to assign a relative ‘weight’ to a cause.

The GCSE historian, confronted with a list of causes of the class’s compiling, should be encouraged to do something with that list, rather than copy it down mindlessly.  Only then might they have the confidence and understanding to reduce it and order it and write down what the ultimate cause might be.

Download my resource: Paint by Numbers Resource

Main Reference: Buxton, E. (2010) ‘Fog over channel; continent accessible? Year 8 use counterfactual reasoning to explore place and social upheaval in eighteenth-century France and Britain’ in Teaching History, 140, Creative Thinking Edition, pp.4-15. Find it HERE.

Other references: 

Chapman, A. (2003) ‘Camels, diamonds and counterfactuals: a model for teaching causal reasoning’ in Teaching History, 112, Empire Edition, pp.46-53. Find it HERE.

Worth, P. (2011) ‘Which women were executed for witchcraft? And which pupils cared? Low-attaining Year 8 use fiction to tackle three demons: extended reading, diversity and causation’ in Teaching History, 144: History for All Edition, pp.4-15. Find it HERE.

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