Ben Tomlisson, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

Note: This blog post is featured in Session 5 of Teaching Big History, our online training course for new and returning teachers. You can delve even deeper into the topic of causality there!

The Big History Project is a course that looks and feels different from any traditional history course currently out there. Many of us who teach multiple social studies subjects are looking for ways to embed and develop those critical historical thinking skills in our students. Big Historians should be able to think critically and “outside the box”; they should get better at reading and writing skills; and they should also develop an interdisciplinary approach to learning. They should also be able to reason like historians and have skills in areas like causation. How do we challenge students to consider multiple causes of an event or process and reach substantive conclusions on the significance of each cause? How do we frame causation questions in Big History that engage students in the work of a historian: questioning the validity of a cause, considering the role of individuals in causation, and looking at the relationship between causes?


The course’s new lessons on causation help us make these skills explicit in our lessons. The Alphonse the Camel activity in Lesson 5.2 is a great way to engage students in “thinking like a historian.” They’re challenged to produce a multicausal explanation that creates a hierarchy of thinking: Which cause was most important? Which was the trigger? As Big Historians, what if we scale up and look at long-term factors, like the formation of mountain ranges and trade routes? My students used this approach to build causal diagrams of Alphonse’s death. They also made claims based on the importance of one cause over another: If not for the mountains, Frank, or trade, would Alphonse have survived?

A one-humped camel, By Jjron, CC BY-SA 3.0.

At the end of this activity, students are keen to know the correct answer, and here is where the counterintuitive nature of our discipline comes in: there isn’t one! There are multiple valuable causal explanations. Although this can be frustrating for students, we can return to the claim testers and Bob Bain’s measure for causation to test the validity of their explanations.

These new lessons (you’ll find them in Unit 3, 4, 6, and 8) offer explicit opportunities to teach causation, but where can we offer more opportunities for students to learn these skills throughout the course? When telling a sweeping narrative like Big History, it’s critical that students understand the thresholds with their ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions. That’s where we have a great vehicle for developing their causation skills. Once they understand the threshold for a particular event, students can begin to analyze these and make their own claims. They can discriminate between the importance of ingredients or look for the most important Goldilocks Condition as the trigger. I encourage students to add new ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions to each threshold and to question the validity of a Goldilocks Condition. Students then begin to see that understanding causation is based on critical and creative thinking, rather than rote learning.

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The lessons on star causation provide opportunities for us to begin teaching this concept earlier in the course. One mistake I made during my first year teaching the course was to approach the prehuman units (Units 2 through 5) as more of a science course, and I concentrated on the rich content within. Instead, try to approach those early units wearing your “historian hat”—you’ll find opportunities for historical thinking throughout. For example, in Unit 4, have students look at the creation of the Earth, and then list all the causes from the Crash Course video: The Solar System & the Earth. Then, have them consider removing some of those causes. Would Earth have been created if not for the collision with an Earth-like planet? Other Big History teachers tell me they love to explore the counterfactual “what if” questions. How would life have been created without plate tectonics? How important was this cause for the creation of life? Do you have an idea regarding causation in Big History? Do you have some favorite counterfactual questions of your own? Post your ideas on Yammer and watch collective learning take hold!

About the author: Ben Tomlisson teaches Big History as a full-year ninth-grade elective at Mount Si High School, WA, where he has taught since 2005. Mr. Tomlisson hails from Manchester, England, and has taught in Japan. He loves that Big History provides the space where he and students can build relationships and ask meaningful questions.



  1. Ben, wonderful blog contribution! So necessary. Thanks for this. Brings to mind one of the two tenets of Zen practice with the Koan. The tenet that half the Koans get at are a deep understanding of this statement: “I am not unaware of causality”. I love this. This statement certainly gets at the infinitely complex issues of complexity. I will refer to the Alphonse exercise as a modern day Zen Koan!:)

    Liked by 1 person

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