We’ve Taken Out The Glue.

A post on teaching cause and effect in history

I believed at least some of my history GCSE students when assured me they really did revise for their mock exams. However, the ‘splurge’ some deposited on the page didn’t look much like the careful explanations of cause and effect they had been taught to write. They also totally bombed the simple chronology question for which they just have to put five events in order.

But why wasn’t their revision paying dividends? I had already introduced regular factual tests and was happy that my classes were remembering more of what they learnt and I could see the benefit of this in their ongoing assimilation of the events and better informed written work. Therefore last year I tried to solve the problems presented by the basic chronology question. I asked my class to learn the key events for their topic in order, for a homework. Then, to stop them forgetting, I asked them to practise putting the events (written on cards) in order as a starter activity once or twice a week and continued every now and then even when we had moved onto new topics. Most of my current year 11 class, reaching the end of our study of China 1911-1989, can put about 30 event cards into a pretty accurate order. Their grasp of chronology clearly showed through in the mock exam results.

However, by this time I had realised that the failure with the chronology question was actually just a symptom of a deeper problem. This realisation dawned when I tried to get my classes to see that they could work out the order of events by thinking about the logic of the story.

“Look, the Kapp Putsch must come after the Treaty of Versailles because it was a reason right-wingers staged the coup in the first place”.

Each time I’d say something like this I got that feeling my class heard the words but not my meaning. This was perplexing as I knew that I had never learnt the chronology of the events using cards, it was the logic of the story that allowed me to get the events in order. So why didn’t that work for my students?

I gave my class a flow diagram of events. Their task was to explain the link between each event (the logic of the story). My goodness they hated this task (I wrote about it here) and it became quite apparent that (despite my best teaching efforts) my students had learnt the events as isolated incidents. This explained the problems some students had with the mock exam. Telling them they needed to ‘learn the technique’ to do better next time rather misses the point. Many wrote about the events, (not the causes or effects of the events) because they hadn’t revised the causes or effects and couldn’t work them out. This seems like an interesting example of the way the knowledge of novice learners is ‘inflexible’ as explained by the cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham.

“When new material is first learned, the mind is biased to remember things in concrete forms that are difficult to apply to new situations. This bias seems best overcome by the accumulation of a greater store of related knowledge, facts, and examples.”

That I could appreciate the ‘logic of the story’ shows I have accumulated a greater store of related knowledge, facts and examples than my students. It is fascinating that a simple chronology question can so effectively expose a more fundamental issue with the grasp of a complex web of events. Ironically, because we carefully teach and students dutifully learn the causes of the events that are most likely to appear in the exam, you can’t necessarily tell how well they understand the flow of events using the exam’s ‘cause’ questions. One solution often used is to identify the biggest events and take the time necessary, perhaps using card sorts, diamond nines (or whatever else occurs to you) to teach for a more complex understanding of their causes. However, for our IGCSE paper you can be asked the causes or effects of many events and each one can’t get ‘the full treatment’. Also we presume that by teaching ‘causes’ of key events the child must automatically be making connections back to the relevant previous events. In fact, as Willingham predicts my students could spend a whole lesson learning the causes of the Kapp Putsch (including the Treaty of Versailles) and fail to mention the Putsch when subsequently asked to list effects of the Versailles Treaty.

I had a revelatory moment recently. I had really pushed my year 10 class (studying Weimar Germany to 1923) to explain back to me how each key event so far could link to one previously. On the spur of the moment I decided to set a homework in which the class just ‘told the story’ of 1918-1923. They had to use all the events listed and each event had to be linked to at least one previous event. I was chuffed with the product of their (and my) efforts. My previous initiatives had ensured my classes tended to remember previous events but across the ability range there was now something more. My focus on ‘the logic of the story’ had led to better grasp of the causal web of these particular events.

This made me realise something more fundamental that seems problematic with the way we teach history. Because GCSE wants our students ‘to analyse’ events we teach them pre-packaged analysis. I now wonder how I could ever have thought that learning causes or effects was intellectually superior to learning to describe the events themselves. Further, I now wonder if by de-emphasising the ‘story’ of history in favour of teaching analysis (cause and effect etc) we have taken out ‘the glue’ that holds events together and actively hindered childrens’ ability to move beyond their tendency to remember the events in isolation.

Do we get things back to front? We tell our classes that real history involves giving reasons for our arguments when in fact our arguments emerge from our complex grasp of ‘the story’. We tell our classes that a ‘skill’ of history is to come up with ‘links’ between the events when it is because we know ‘the story’ so well that we can see the links.

History shouldn’t be ‘one damn thing after another’ and I think telling the story is the way to avoid that.


Does our teaching look a bit like this?



We need to talk about ‘transfer’

I am a history teacher but am I fulfilling my role as a teacher if children walk out of my lessons simply knowing more history than when they walked in? Should my goals be broader? The influential educationalist Guy Claxton denies that my goals should centre on teaching history at all:

‘Knowing the Kings and Queens of England…are not top priority life skills. Their claim for inclusion in the core curriculum rests on the extent to which they provide engaging and effective ‘exercise machines’ for stretching and strengthening generalizable habits of mind’

In education today it is rare that the content taught is justified as worth knowing just for its own sake (although I have tried). As Claxton illustrates, it is so often a ‘means to an end’.

  • Learn history to develop analytical skills
  • Learn maths to improve problem solving skills
  • Play sports to learn to work as a team
  • Do brain training programmes to improve your memory
  • Use playdough in Reception to improve writing muscles
  • Set story writing to make children more creative
  • Learn chess to improve critical thinking skills

In each case we are making an enormous leap. How do we KNOW that the skill or trait acquired in one area will ‘transfer’ to other areas; that it will generalise? I might encourage my daughters to show ‘love’ towards each other but it would be farcical to presume this would help them ‘love’ studying geography at school.

My gut feeling is that playing sport is a ‘good thing’. However, I’m often astonished to hear of the skills displayed by a child on the sports pitch that I see no sign of in the classroom. Ability to work as part of a team learnt in sport does not seem to mean children will play their part in class group work. Maybe some skills and traits just need time to sink in. When my son was three his nursery started teaching the class half an hour of yoga a week because apparently yoga improves concentration. No one seemed to question the likelihood of such a brief exposure being efficacious, let alone whether transfer to other contexts was ever likely.

Once we accept the very obvious point that there are limits on how far a skill or trait we teach will actually ‘transfer’ between contexts we must concede that we can’t just presume such transfer will happen.

Even when the two contexts are close such as applying your knowledge of essay writing in one subject to another we still see transfer problems. I asked my year 13 class the other day whether what they had learnt about essay writing in English helped them write history essays. No, they replied, the two essay types are just SO different. I was at the time attempting to show them that the structure of their two history coursework essays was basically the same. They struggled to see even that similarity which was so glaringly obvious to me.

It is clearly incorrect to state that skills or traits don’t ever transfer to different contexts. However, they don’t necessarily transfer as READILY as we like to presume and it depends on:

  • Whether the skill/trait means the same thing in different contexts. I might use the word ‘analysis’ to describe what I do in essay writing and chess but maybe the similarity is only word deep.
  • How CLOSE or similar the two contexts are. For example I presume an accomplished horse rider might use their skills to learn bareback riding quite quickly, to ride a camel quicker than the average but might not be much quicker to learn to ride a surf board!

There is excellent and enormously extensive research on transfer. Take critical thinking, we know that beyond similar or analogous circumstances reasoning principles are not transferred. We also know that you need expertise to recognise the similar features of superficially different problems which explains the inability of my class to recognise the similarity of essay structures. There is a superb summary of the research here that is very well worth a read.

Despite there being such useful research and the obviousness of fact that transfer can’t be presumed when do you EVER hear a discussion of the likelihood of transferability when debating the worth of an educational initiative? We must stop presuming that just because we teach something in one context our pupils will apply it in another. If we don’t want to simply waste valuable teaching time we just must start talking about transfer. We must question whether it is likely. We must discuss what we can do to make it more possible.

We really, really need to start talking about transfer.