Rethinking the Approach to Teaching Causation In the History Classroom


Core to historical research and the teaching of history is the concept of causation – in fact, E. H. Carr (1961: 87) famously opined, “the study of history is a study of causes”. Without an awareness and understanding of the concept of causation, it would be difficult to comprehend the reasons why events happened the way they did, and that evidence could be marshalled within a historical context to justify the relative hierarchy of factors for any given historical occurrence. However, based on my teaching experience and interaction with other teachers as well as feedback from students, I discovered that students found it difficult to make causal explanations that harnessed their knowledge and understanding of events in history. Specifically, these difficulties included their inability to construct viable historical explanations and to evaluate the relative importance of certain causes in explaining an event, development or action. This article describes an intervention carried out in a school in Singapore in 2015, using ideas and strategies developed by history educators related to the concept of historical causation and the ways to improve students’ causal reasoning skills.

Challenges in teaching historical causation

Scott (1990) broadly defined causation as

an understanding of the difference between long-term and short-term causes; an understanding that some causes are likely to be more important than others; an appreciation of the difference between, and the interdependence of, motivatory and enabling factors; and an understanding of the inter-relationship of different causatory factors.

(Scott, 1990: 9 cited in Phillips, 2002: 42)

However, many students in Shemilt’s Evaluation Study of the Schools History Project (SHP) seemed to “misconstrue even the most apparently self-evident features of the causality concept” (Shemilt, 1980: 30). The tendency was for these students to see causation as “something with the power to make something else happen” (Shemilt, 1980: 30). Exacerbating this issue was the students’ inability to understand “motivated action” as they “insist[ed] on seeing History as a record of what happened to people rather than of what they made happen” (Shemilt, 1980: 32) [emphasis mine]. Much of Shemilt’s findings pointed to apparent difficulties students faced when trying to make causal explanations.


An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

Newsletter Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up-to-date with new journal issues!