Kathy Hays, BHP Teacher
Arizona, USA

Note from BHP Team: This blog post is from Session 8.5 of Teaching Big History, BHP’s online PD course for teachers.

I teach Big History to a diverse population of ninth graders. As with any classroom, differentiation and extra scaffolding are necessary for meeting my learners’ needs. It’s important to challenge my high achieving students, while helping those who struggle experience success and develop those higher-level thinking skills. One area where all students need to develop their skills is understanding causation. They tend to see historical events through a monocausal lens, rather than connecting the big-picture dots.

The opening activity for the BHP practice progression on causation is the perfect appetizer for moving us toward this deeper thinking.

In Lesson 2.0’s Causation – Natural Disasters, students discuss what caused a recent natural disaster of their choosing, and in doing so, come to realize that the answer is more complicated than “a downed power line.” It’s really helpful to kick off our discussion of causation with a topic immediately relevant and accessible to everyone. We revisit points from this activity as our understanding of causation grows more nuanced with subsequent activities from this series – where we focus on topics like the formation of stars and planet Earth.

But first, some specific notes on the Lesson 2.0 activity.

We kick it off by homing in on a specific natural disaster. When I did this most recently in my class, a convenient case was California’s Camp Fire. While the Camp Fire dominated local news for weeks, I’m careful not to assume everyone has heard of it – so we watch a couple of news segments to make sure everyone is on the same page. Then, we launch into a discussion about “what caused it.”

Students researching the (multiple) causes of California’s Camp Fire. Photo courtesy Kathy Hays.

I have students brainstorm a list of causes in small groups, and then invite one representative from each group to come record their answers on the board in front of the class. We take a quick glance at all the causes, noting commonalities and distinctions. Ideas like drought, high winds, and excessively hot temperatures make the cut for most groups. Some groups will surface causes like “homes built in burn zones” and causes related to governance or motives of utility companies, and then things start to get interesting.

As we progress through the causation progression of activities, causal maps enter the scene! Photo by Kathy Hays.

After this whole-group discussion, I have the small groups go back and add to their list of causes. By this point, interest and creativity have been sparked (no pun intended) and some students begin researching the Camp Fire in more depth on the internet – bringing back even more potential causes to their groups. I let this happen and love that it does – student inquiry and curiosity are guiding forces in my BHP classroom.

As groups’ lists of causes grow, I then ask students to categorize them into short term, intermediate, and long term, using the definitions of these time frames from the BHP worksheet. This is more complicated than it might seem. Where does “drought” go, for example? Is it part of a natural, long-term, recurring cycle? Or do human behaviors of consumption in recent years punt it to the “short term” category? The point here isn’t that there’s a single right answer. Rather, it’s an opportunity to voice different perspectives. I challenge students to back up their claims with evidence – and we are careful to set some start-of-year norms around respectful discussion. With this activity alone, students can tell that BHP is going to be a different kind of class!

This activity is a solid first step toward helping kids move beyond monocausal thinking. As we move through the BHP curriculum, it takes continued practice and intentionality to get kids to look through the “kaleidoscope lens” of multiple causation. We can’t simply introduce a skill and assume students will pick it up and use it. Conveniently, there are several more activities in the causation progression that allow for practice, practice, practice.

About the author: Kathy Hays has been teaching for 30 years, and teaching Big History since 2015. She teaches five BHP classes a year, and so reaches about 130 ninth-grade students. Her school is on a semester schedule with daily 52-minute periods. Kathy’s favorite thing about teaching Big History is the opportunity to learn with her students!

Header image: California Camp Fire, by NASA (Joshua Stevens) – NASA Landsat 8 Operational Land, Public Domain.

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