From Big Ideas to More Questions: Exploring the Causal Model

Over the past couple of months, I have led professional learning workshops at the district, state, and national level. The focus of each of these sessions has either been on classroom discourse or critical thinking. Of course, both of these topics complement each other with students benefiting from thoughtful implementation of activities consisting of protocols generating the type of thinking required for each.

A couple of summers ago I attended Edufest, a conference on gifted and talented education, at Boise State University. During this week-long conference, I attended several sessions on inquiry-based thinking, critical thinking, and creativity. In one of the sessions led by Cloyce Weaver, Student Achievement Officer in Ontario, I became reacquainted with the Causal Model strategy. I have adapted the strategy adding collaborative learning and physical movement.

The Causal Model explores cause and effect. The activity begins with students focusing on the end result, the effect, and proceeding to determine the causes of the result. The activity is relatively easy to implement. Basic steps include:

  1. On a sheet of paper, write the end result in the upper left corner. For example, I might write, students are not engaged in class.
  2. Ask the students the question, “What caused this?” Students generate a list of causes. In this example, students may have determined the following causes: boredom, hunger, exhaustion, not challenged, social issues, etc.
  3. During the brainstorm of causes, pause to identify possible connections.
  4. When students have commenced with the brainstorm, create a Big Ideas section in the lower right. In this section, students choose one of the concepts and write a statement using a relational verb on the list provided. In my example, students may have chosen the concept, boredom, and the relational verb, affects: Boredom affects the energy level of students reducing the level of engagement in the classroom. The Big Ideas section is completed with multiple sentences focusing on varying concepts.
  5. Once the Big Ideas sections is complete, students determine whether or not they believe the statements are true or not. If they believe the statement is true, they keep the statement, and if they believe it is false, they eliminate it.

These directions outline the basic steps of the Causal Model. There are multiple ways to modify this activity adding collaboration and physical movement. When I modeled this activity in recent workshops, I used chart paper to begin. I wrote the end result, the effect, on the chart paper located at the front of the room. Participants wrote the statement on sheets provided. Together, we brainstormed a couple of causes before participants worked with a partner to create a list of causes.

While a list of causes was being produced in partner groups, I randomly handed out sticky notes to each participant. Participants chose a relational verb based on the color of sticky note they were provided. They then chose a concept and wrote one statement on the sticky note.

Purple: Creates, Challenges, Impeded
Pink:  Undermines, Inhibits, Destroys
Blue:  Affects, Reduces, Supports
Yellow:  Produces, Embeds Reflects
Green:  Influences, Enables, Limits
Orange: Challenges, Engenders, Enables

On my signal, participants stood an found a partner with the same color of sticky note.  They took turns reading their statements. If they both agreed the statements were true, they added them to their big ideas lists. The pair found another pair with a different color of sticky.  They took turns reading their statements, adding true statements to their big ideas list. As a group of four, they added additional statement to their big ideas lists using different concepts and different relational verbs.

The activity could end with class discussion and student reflection of the experience. Or the activity could expand by changing Big Ideas statements into “How” or “Why” questions. My example, boredom affects the energy level of students reducing the level of engagement in the classroom, could be written as How does boredom affect the energy level of students causing a reduction in the level of engagement in the classroom? The questions generated could develop into mini research projects for small groups, or they could become the start of a Socratic Seminar.

Rolling with Critical Thinking

As we address the needs students in our communities, schools, and classrooms, establishing an environment rich with critical thinking experiences provides these youth with opportunities to grow academically as they are given the skill set to interact and connect with those around them. Facets of critical thinking including inquiry-based teaching (.46), problem-solving teaching (.67), cooperative learning (.40), and meta-cognitive strategies (.55) all have effect sizes (greater than .40) that have the “potential to accelerate student achievement” (Hattie’s work examining 250+ influences on student achievement).

Critical thinking is defined as, “the mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism” (The Foundation for Critical Thinking).

I have presented multiple professional learning sessions in my district as well as at local and national conferences on critical thinking activities teachers can use in the classroom. One of the quotes I like participants to ponder and analyze is as follows:

“Critical and creative thinking strategies are not merely “fun” or “cute” activities to be pulled out at the end of the week or semester, or after the state tests are over for the year in order to fill time and entertain students. They are ways of deeply engaging and interacting with ideas and concepts in meaningful context, building meaning and understanding through multiple processing of ideas and information in increasingly sophisticated levels of thinking, adding depth and complexity to the content being learned, and finding personal relevance in the learning process” (Hickerson, 2013).

While critical thinking activities may be used to pique interest, it is important to realize that the ability to become a critical thinker is a foundational skill necessary to furthering deep understanding.

I’m a big advocate for using sentence/question stems in the classroom to help scaffold inquiry, reflection, and thought. Staying true to my belief that learning should be interactive, I developed critical thinking cubes. Each cube has six sets of question/thinking stems based on the 8 Intellectual Standards. There are multiple purposes to using these cubes, but I like to use them to interact with text. During the second read of a text, students roll a dice and pick from the question/sentence stems to discuss as a small group the text. Depending on the purpose for reading the text, I specifically select the critical thinking cube I want small groups to use. An example of a cube I have used recently to analyze the evidence students have identified to explore a text, is found by clicking on the following link: Critical Thinking Cube #6.

The discussion levels of each small group using the critical thinking cubes increases dramatically when the cubes are provided in comparison to conversations where the cubes are not used. Sometimes I like to add another layer by utilizing the World Cafe Protocol to mix up groups and deepen conversations of a text. This protocol is described in an earlier post: World Cafe and PLCing.