Bob Bain, Big Historian
Michigan, USA

Note from the BHP Team: This month, we’re digging deep into the “big skill” of cause and consequence. The following blog post is adapted from the transcript of a video (featuring Bob Bain) that you’ll find in  Session 5.1 of Teaching Big History, BHP’s online PD course. Be sure to check out BHP Teacher Takes on the topic!

Today, I want to talk with you about change, cause, and consequence in Big History. Students and teachers in the Big History Project are hyper-focused on change over vast expanses of time and space. Indeed, a critical outcome of the course is the way it increases student skill in describing changes over almost 14 billion years of time, and literally a universe of space.

Even after a few lessons, our students can use David Christian’s thresholds of increasing complexity to describe major changes in the history of the Universe, of the Earth, of life, and of human life on Earth. These thresholds help students develop a big picture or big framework, and they provide a coherent narrative for the Big History Project course, and hopefully, for subsequent study and for our collective history.

BHP Teachers are discussing how they teach Causation in the classroom. Join the conversation now in the BHP Teacher Community on Yammer!

Beyond describing and understanding these thresholds, however, we also want students to improve the ways they evaluate and make claims about the causes and consequences of change, not only in history and science, but also in their lives. However, research on people’s thinking suggests it’s more difficult to deepen students’ thinking about cause and consequence than it is to teach them a narrative that describes change over time and space — no matter how big.

So, we’re going to talk a bit about cause and consequence in history, the science, and in our classrooms. Using research on thinking, we’ll first look at how historians and scientists think about cause and consequence. Then, we’ll turn to scholarship on students’ thinking, to illustrate the differences between how students and disciplinary experts — those students and historians — see cause and consequence. Finally, we’ll discuss some of the visual and language activities and the tools we have built to help students develop more complex and nuanced ways to think about cause and consequence.

I have three points to make: First, cause and consequence are central to the work of historians and scientists, and they have developed complex ways to think about both. Second, students—even those who have taken courses in history and the sciences—have far less complex pictures of cause and consequence, and this limits their thinking and understanding of change. Third, explicit instruction on cause and consequence will encourage students to develop more complex and useful ways to think about change and continuity.

In many ways, I’m focusing on another threshold of increasing complexity — a learning threshold, one that we want our students to cross so they will leave the Big History Project with a more complex understanding of change, its causes, and its consequences.

So, how do historians and scientists think about change, cause, and consequence? It’s important to remember that humans have long wondered how and why things change, why they don’t change, and what’s been or could be the impact of change. Indeed, cause and consequence appear to shape almost all origin stories.

It’s not surprising, then, that as people developed systematic or disciplinary ways to study the world around them, they made analyzing and making claims about cause and consequence central to their efforts. Now, while we know that the various disciplines have different ways to conduct research, different ways to develop and test claims, the scholarship on disciplinary thinking has revealed striking similarities to the ways historians and scientists think about cause and consequence.

To paraphrase and combine the work of Richard Evans on history and Tina Grotzer’s research on science, I see three similarities. First, most historians and scientists will go to some lengths to avoid mono-causal explanations as they seek to develop dynamic relationships between and among causes and consequences. Second, most develop a hierarchy of causes that vary in importance or significance. And third, most understand that there are often unintended causes and consequences, including those very far away in time and space or that exist in large structures or even longer trends.

In short, historians and scientists have complex views of cause and consequence — views that are dynamic and stretch forward and back in time and across space, that locate human agents in larger contexts and do not necessarily privilege those events closest in time or space to the change. They have a rich and robust vocabulary to describe, analyze, and evaluate cause and consequence.

And students? Research conducted with learners across the globe has found that most students see change in both history and science quite differently than the experts. Most students see change as mono-causal. They tend to view cause and consequence as simple links in a linear chain. For most students, the most important cause or consequence is the one closest in time and space. And typically, students think that all historical events are the by-product of the actions of intentional human agents.

Several studies reveal this tendency for students to gravitate toward the personal or the near to explain change, very often pushing aside large-scale structural or distant factors. For example, in a very interesting study, Carretero and his colleagues— [research that was] done around 1997 — asked sixth-, eighth-, tenth-, twelfth-grade students, as well as graduate history majors, to explain the causes of pivotal events in history. The researchers asked the students to put in rank order five types of historical explanations— personal, political, economic, ideological, or global. Only the graduate history majors valued political, economic, or global explanations over personal explanations of human wants or desires.

Only the graduate students in history tried to locate personal actions within larger structural context. The precollegiate students consistently ranked the intentions and desires of the historical actors as the most compelling explanations for historical change. Most surprising was how little change in causal reasoning occurred between grades six and twelve.

These findings present a powerful challenge for teachers who seek to push their students to understand large-scale changes and their impact. It suggests that if we do not intentionally and explicitly engage students’ tendency to see change as a singular by-product of human agency, then students will be likely to translate all structural trends into personal desires. Or they’ll be quite nearsighted in their search for causal or consequential explanations.

So, how is the Big History Project helping teachers help students think more like historians and scientists when thinking about causation?

First, we’re making the concepts of cause and consequence explicit. We’re seeking to create pictures and a vocabulary of change to help students move beyond the personal and proximate claims. We do this in several ways. Very early in the course, we have students use special charts or maps to identify causes and consequences in the very materials they are studying. For example, we use a chart to identify causal claims David Christian makes in explaining how the early Earth formed, or how humans developed agriculture.


Then, they map the multiple relationships between the various causes and consequences they are studying. Using such charts or maps allows students to see that some consequences have multiple causes and that a consequence can become a cause.


Later on in the course, we introduce students to causal and consequential categories, and language that they can use to describe and analyze cause or consequence. Specifically, students learn to analyze cause and consequence by content or institutional type, such as natural changes, political changes, economic changes, religious, or intellectual changes. Or duration, such as short term, long term, or immediate. Or role, such as a triggering cause, an underlying cause, a contributing cause. Or significance, such as a major cause, a necessary cause, a sufficient cause, Or a cause of another change.

Once they’ve acquired familiarity with these categories and language, we give them practice applying these. First, in a delightful and powerful activity we’ve adapted from the work of Arthur Chapman and James Woodcock in the United Kingdom. In this activity, students analyze the story of Alphonse the camel to determine if it really was the straw that broke poor old Alphonse’s back. The story is filled with many interconnected causal explanations for why Alphonse died. He had a congenital birth defect, an oppressive camel driver, the failure of camels to unionize to fight their horrible working conditions in an exploitative economic structure — to name but a few. The story is designed to enable students to apply the new language and new categories, to identify short- and long-term causes, underlying and triggering causes, major and minor causes, and economic and personal causes, and thus to make a complex argument about the factors involved in poor Alphonse’s demise.


These activities, charts, maps, and new language help students develop conceptual clarity and more nuance in their thinking about the causes of change in natural and human realms. The concept maps and new language encourage students to look beyond the human and the proximate causes to consider long- and short-term causes, and to identify the role that different things play in eliciting change. With such new understanding, the students are ready to engage in their own investigations of change and evaluate the causal and consequential claims of others — independent work that we launch later in the course.

It’s recap time: In the Big History Project course, we’ve created several activities designed to help students think like historians and scientists in analyzing change. That is, we’ve modified and created lessons to help students avoid mono-causal claims, to develop far more dynamic pictures of cause — pictures that recognize the different but interconnected roles that events, structures, processes, and people play in making change. Further, these activities help students evaluate the relative significance of different causes and the relationship between cause and effect. Our goal in adding these activities? We intend to assist students to cross their own threshold of increasing complexity, the complexity involved in thinking like historians and scientists when analyzing causes and consequences.

Be sure to visit our blog or the community to talk more in-depth about cause and consequence in Big History.

About the author: Bob Bain is a professor of educational studies and history at the University of Michigan. Bob was working on the Big History Project even before it began—that is, even before the BHP pilot launched in six schools in the US and three in Australia. A former high school teacher who has spent more than 25 years in secondary classrooms, Bob studies teaching and learning history and the social sciences by studying teachers teaching and students learning history and other “stuff.”

Header image: Dromedary camel in outback Australia, near Silverton, NSW. By Jjron, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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