Teaching Middle-School Kids About Historical Significance and Causation

Causation:  One of the 5cs of historical thinking

Jonathan Gold, a middle school teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island, appears to be doing some very good things in his history classroom.  Over at the “Teaching Tolerance” blog of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Gold writes about the ways he tries to expand his students’ thinking about significance and bias in history. 

Yes, these higher-order historical thinking skill can take place in the middle school classroom.  

Here is a taste of Gold’s piece:

In my middle school history classes, understanding this question is at the heart of our learning. Asking it of my students inevitably leads to fascinating discussions about perspectives, bias and representation—exactly the conversations I want them to be having. We return to the question throughout the year to remind ourselves that what matters from the past is always up for debate. Indeed, many students’ struggles to develop their historical thinking skills can be traced back to the pernicious belief that history is a fixed, objective set of facts rather than a collection ofhistorians’ interpretations and analyses. The challenge for history teachers is how to push students’ thinking past this static concept of the past in ways that are developmentally appropriate and explicit.
Cause and Effect
Students quickly arrive at the idea that something or someone is significant if it/they “did something important.” In this line of thinking, George Washington is significant for leading the country through the Revolutionary War, or the Battle of Gettysburg is significant as a turning point in the Civil War. The impact is clear, and students can capably reduce these well-known aspects of the past into simple “domino effect” relationships by the time they reach middle school.
To begin complicating their sense of causation, I introduce them to this chart that lists 28 different phrases for expressing cause-and-effect relationships. (For an elementary class, this chart could easily be reduced to fewer terms.) Now, the discussion gets down in the weeds and forces students to evaluate their criteria for significance. Different events and people come into focus. For example, the Emancipation Proclamation may have “set the stage for” a federal ban on slavery, but the work of activists within the abolitionist movement “highlighted” the injustice of slavery, “demonstrated” the breadth of support for abolitionism and “helped bring about” the end of slavery.
Although students intuitively understand that historical events and figures make varying contributions to history and have different impacts, it can be difficult for them to demonstrate a mature grasp of those relationships. This is due, I think, to a lack of sufficient language for expressing causes and effects. Asking students to choose from a list of 28 (and it could easily be more) phrases makes the diversity of available relationships explicit; it also allows them to see that historians are making choices about what matters by virtue of the actual words they use.