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.

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