Sunday, June 12, 2016

Thinking Like A Historian-Causation as a Historical Thinking Skill

     Recently I had an opportunity to grade for the College Board on the AP History exams. My assignment was the short essays. I graded over 2000 of the answers written by students who took the AP United States History course at their high school or through home schooling. It was an interesting experience and one which I am grateful to have had the opportunity to partake in. I plan on doing it again next year and if scheduling works out, will go to the site and meet many of the instructors involved.

     The AP History exam is graded differently than the way I grade in my classrooms. It took a bit to get used to it, but once I did the system worked well. I wanted to learn more about how the students learned or what the instructors were supposed to be teaching the students. I had already looked over the AP History course a few times, but this time I really got into the mechanics. I also took a good look at the part where the instructors are supposed to be teaching students what history is and to promote the development of historical thinking.

     This is important because the grading of the exams involved grading answers that were supposed to be written using cause and effect answers or the causation portion of historical thinking. The AP course uses the following explanation of causation:

Historical thinking involves the ability to identify, analyze, and evaluate the relationships among historical causes and effects, distinguishing between those that are long term and proximate. Historical thinking also involves the ability to distinguish between causation and correlation, and an awareness of contingency, the way that historical events result from a complex variety of factors that come together in unpredictable ways and often have unanticipated consequences.

     That is part of the Chronological Reasoning section of the Historical Thinking Skill Categories. Patterns of Continuity and Change over Time as well as Periodization are included with Causation in this singular category. The idea is that students will use all of the nine thinking skills to develop their understanding of causation so as to enable them to explain events as follows: 

D1—Explain long and /or short-term causes and/or effects of an historical event, development, or process.

D2—Evaluate the relative significance of different causes and/or effects on historical events or processes, distinguishing between causation and correlation and showing an awareness of historical contingency.

      Multiple historians have written on how to teach history using these five C's which Causation is part of. Sam Wineburg, John Fea, and James Smith are three which I have experience in learning from along with many others through their own actions and methods. Wineburg covered this in his book Historical Thinking and Other Unusual Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Fea did so in his book, How to Study History. Smith has done so through an EdX course on teaching history. All three used the five C's and naturally, none of the three are the originators of the concept. That goes back a long way.

     Thinking historically involves considering a world and its history which is much larger than ourselves. We as individuals are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but our nature often prevents us from understanding that fact. Often, we fail to accept our smallness. We think that we as individuals are capable of creating change directly as the results of our actions, yet history teaches us that change is the result of all of our actions and that our own individual actions are really nothing more than just part of all actions working throughout history. Howard Zinn commented, "If people could see that Change comes about as a result of millions of tiny acts that seem totally insignificant, well then they wouldn't hesitate to take those tiny acts." 

     The American Historical Association has an article by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke from the January 2007 issue of Perspectives on History that goes into more depth on the five C's of historical thinking. They label Causation as Causality which is used with context and change over time "to form arguments explaining past change." I agree with both the AP and AHA on this as they are saying the same. American Historical Association "What Does it Mean to Think Historically?" 

    It really comes down to making sure we as instructors take the time to teach Causation and the other C's of historical thinking, but it also means we have to incorporate the development of those skills in our methodology. This is the part where many instructors fall short. They lecture on the five C's or use the AP guide to explain historical thinking skills, but fail to promote student usage of the skills. What good is explaining the skills if you don't put them into practice? I will cover more of this in future installments of The Art of Teaching History. 

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