Domino effect ≠ historical causation

Domino effect ≠ historical causation

By Rachel Phillips, OER Project Team

Of all the historical thinking skills we want our students to develop, causation is one of the most important. But the past is messy and complex, and it’s easy for students to get lost or oversimplify as they learn causation. By the time students encounter the causation progressions in our courses, they probably think they understand cause and effect—you knock down one domino, and the rest will start to fall. Simple, right? Not quite. Cause and effect is not simple, and history (never mind real life) isn't as predictable as a domino run. We often need to confront this common misconception about causation and help students see that historical events are often very complicated and rarely (if ever) have a single, immediate cause. So how do we do this? Why not give them a causal map—or better yet, have them create such a map?

Causal maps are a type of concept map, or technique for displaying and organizing the information that surrounds events and processes. They are a great tool for helping students visualize historical causation, which, as we know, can be pretty messy. They can also help nonlinear thinkers share their ideas visually and move linear thinkers away from monocausal thinking. By taking a historical event and mapping it out, students really start to grapple with the idea of multiple causation, which complicates the relationship between causes, effects, and how they interact.

Here is a simple causal map from the WHP activity Causation – Revolutions, but they can certainly get more detailed.

A visual map with nodes of causal events related to the concept of "Revolutions."Revolutions causal map

Causal maps have nodes (in this case the contents of each circle) and connections between the nodes that show cause or influence. Adding more nodes and connections is one way to add dimension. Students can also add detail by including dates, sources and evidence, and visual elements (such graphics or data representations) as well as categorize the causes by role, significance, and type. Integrate some art into the activity by letting students get creative with their nodes, connections, and labels.

Causal mapping offers lots of opportunities—you could have small groups each map out a historical event, giving each group different periodization to examine around that event. For example, imagine you want to ask students to map out the causes of Modern Revolution as an extension to the Big History activity Causation – The Modern Revolution. Assign one group to begin mapping in 1900, another in 1200, and a third starting with the Big Bang, so students can compare differences when you play with periodization and scale. (You might also want to assign a minimum number of nodes to each group or the 1900 map could have a lot less detail.)

If you are a World History teacher, you could first have students map out the Black Death like they do in the WHP 1200 course activity Causation – The Black Death. Then, to extend this further, you could have them compare what they learned from the articles in the activity with some new research from Monica Green that provides a slightly different timeline and causes for the Black Death. (You could also use Bennett Sherry’s blog about the Black Death, which summarizes Green’s work.)

Another causal map, this time showing ramifications surrounding a bubble labelled "Spread of the Black Death."Black Death causal map

Another way to make things fun and memorable is to have students act out the causal maps. Have some students be the nodes and others the connectors, and you could even get creative with significance, role, and type and how you choose to represent the nodes and connectors. Your students might have a good time coming up with ideas for acting out the triggering event! 

If you haven’t tried causal maps yet, we highly recommend getting out some butcher paper and markers, and giving your students a change to map out causes. You can use any of the causation progression lessons in any of the courses, but you can also try out some other approaches. If you’re a Big History Teacher, you could start a class project where students map out the history of the world from the Big Bang to today, adding to it as they reach new thresholds and gather more information. (You’ll need a pretty big roll of butcher paper for that one.) For teachers of any course, causal maps can be a simple, effective, and fun review activity—at the end of a unit or the school year, give students a chance to collaborate on large causal maps that will also be great for content review!

What is your favorite way to do causal mapping? Have you ever tried the live version? Please share your successes (and any words of caution you might have) with us in the OER Project Online Teacher Community!

About the author: Rachel Phillips, PhD, is a learning scientist who leads research and evaluation efforts for the OER Project, as well as develops curriculum for their courses. She is elementary certified, has taught in K–12 schools, and currently serves as an adjunct professor for graduate courses in American University's School of Education. Rachel was formerly Director of Research and Evaluation at, faculty at the University of Washington, and program director for National Science Foundation-funded research. Her work focuses on the intersections of learning sciences and equity in formal educational spaces.

Cover image: Rube Goldberg Machine. © Jeffrey Coolidge / Getty Images.

  • I forgot to mention the strategy we used in preparation. Because this course was a required course, we could ask sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for advice and notes. (They would warn us to take good notes in preparation.) Then, we would get together and talk our way through. We came up with different reasons why some item was connected to the next. In writing our exam, we were encouraged to express our "bridge."  The more names, places, events, and so on we could use to convince Sr. Mary Jean of a connection  the better.
      (An aside here. History teachers (all teachers) have a golden opportunity to say to students -  "NOTICE" this current event. Use all your senses and write something down. Any record you make will bring back other specifics.)

  • WAY back in the day (nearly 60 years ago) I had a history professor whose final exam was a "sweep." She gave us a name, a country, or a date. Our exam grade would be based on how far we got in history before we made a mistake! We could connect across countries, people or a date, and be in the same "year," but everything had to sweep across or forward in time. I believe the course name was History of Christian Civilizations, but, of course, we had to know about other civilizations besides Christian ones. This same professor, Sister Mary Jean, SP, went from Indiana to the South to participate in the Civil Rights demonstrations in the 1960's. She would have hopped right into causal mapping! I'm going to share this opportunity with my classmates. Oh, happy day!


  •   Ooh, great idea on cross regional and internal! Thanks for that and your kind words! 

  •    we don't have anything cooked up like this for Unit 5, but happy to meet with you (if it's not too late) and chat through what you might do that's similar!