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Causal Reasoning

This video shows a 9th-grade history teacher teaching a lesson on causal reasoning to a mixed-ability class (though it is labeled Gifted and Talented). The instructor presents students with the fictional story of Alphonse the Camel, whose back is ultimately broken by his owner's addition of a single straw. Through group work based on this accessible, engaging example, students learn how multiple causes of an event interact. The video is punctuated by student and teacher interviews, which provide the viewer with additional insight into student learning.

The video provides examples of two promising practices:

  • Exploring why things happen through an accessible, fictional example and then applying the same approach to an historical problem
  • Using concrete instructional strategies to push students to consider different kinds of historical causes and the relationships among them

Alphonse the Camel
The teacher introduces students to the story of Alphonse during their study of the causes of World War I. The students discover that there are a number of factors that ultimately lead to the camel's demise, which is finally brought about by a straw thrown on his back. The fictional story challenges students to think beyond single factors and simple lists when exploring causality.

Students identify and analyze the causes implicit in the story. Using note cards with change-related words on them, students pair each word with a cause in order to identify the kind of change the particular cause brought about. For example, they are asked to distinguish between causes that initiate change and causes that exacerbate change.

Applying Knowledge in New Contexts

After students discuss their work identifying various causes and the relationships among them, the teacher asks them to apply what they have learned to a new problem, the causes of World War I. This topic is explored at greater length in a follow-up lesson.

What's New?

History teachers frequently ask students to consider causes. This lesson, however, challenges students to grapple with multiple causality, including the way that different kinds of causes relate to each other. Further, the design of the lesson allows all students to participate and be challenged, not only because it begins with an accessible case, but also because it includes causal relationships of varied complexity.

The video moves back and forth between the lesson in action and interviews with the students and instructor in order to highlight what makes the lesson successful.

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