Does the linguistic release the conceptual? Helping Year 10 to improve their casual reasoning

Teaching History article

By James Woodcock, published 31st May 2005

Please note: this article pre-dates the 2014 National Curriculum and some content may be outdated.

Does new vocabulary help students to express existing ideas for which they do not yet have words or does it actually give them new ideas which they did not previously hold? James Woodcock asks whether offering students new vocabulary can give them new ideas, and whether this can enhance their historical analyses of causation problems. This is an account of an experimental lesson sequence with a mixed-ability Year 10 class. The students were working towards the essay question: ‘ “Hitler was not to blame for World War II.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?’ Whereas there has already been plenty of published reflection and analysis by history teachers on the development of literacy and language through causal reasoning in history, Woodcock is asking a new question. He is asking whether a direct focus on specific vocabulary can actually develop an understanding of the nature of historical causation and a facility with causal reasoning. For example, there are so many synonyms for the word ‘cause’ precisely because there are so many ways in which something can be ‘caused’. If the only words students use to describe causation are ‘cause’ or ‘reason’ they can never produce a meaningful analysis. Woodcock concludes, ‘The clumsiness of the word “cause” in the context of “causes of appeasement”... reveals just how unsophisticated, imprecise, and inappropriate that word can be.’

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