Some Particular Second-Order Concepts


Second-order concepts underpin historical explanations. Apart from time and, in English-speaking countries, evidence, cause is the most often studied concept in history. Cause is also at the heart of history education: ‘To teach history, it is necessary not only to consider past events, but to include some kind of causal relationships between past and present or, more generally, two different points in time’ (Carretero et al., 1994: 362). An event or a process’ significance is often studied because of its causal power. The significance of an event may be measured in terms of the priority of various causes, or causal weighting (Martin, 1989), as an action-set, or as part of a pattern of change. Philosophers of history have made a distinction between intentional and causal explanations, depending on the involvement of specific agents, or reasons for action, and structural factors or background conditions (Carr, 1961; Collingwood, 1946). History education researchers have linked the notion of intentional explanation with that of empathy, or the assumption that what people did and made in the past makes sense in terms of their ideas about the world in which they lived (Lee, 2005).

Empirical research about students’ ideas of ‘cause’ and historical explanation is grounded on the distinction between reasons and causes. From the perspective of cognitive psychology, Carretero et al. (1994) studied the types of causal explanations novices and experts tend to formulate to explain historical events. When asked ‘What caused the “discovery” of America for the Europeans?’, young adolescents and non-expert adults considered the individual motives of Columbus and the Spanish Queen and King to be fundamental, whereas history experts generated structural explanations. Hierarchies of causes were also analysed: novices tend to emphasize the role of short-term causes whereas experts could integrate distant, short-term and trigger causes of various kinds (economical, social, political or cultural) (Voss, Carretero, Kennel, & Silffies, 1994).

Through written tasks and oral follow-up interviews, the CHATA Project (Lee, Ashby, & Dickinson, 2001a) delved into children and adolescent students’ ideas about intentional explanations (intentions, purposes or reasons for action, linked to empathy)—such as ‘Claudius wanted to show that he was a great emperor’—and causal explanations (enabling conditions and causal antecedents)—such as ‘The Romans were able to take over most of Britain because the Britons lived in different groups which sometimes fought each other’. Moreover, nuances in causal reasoning were categorized under the notion of ‘explanatory adequacy’, for instance, the importance of ‘because’, that establishes the differences between explanations and statements of facts. Children were asked whether there was a real difference or not between the sentences: ‘The Romans took over Britain. The Roman army had good weapons’ and ‘The Romans were able to take Britain because their army had good weapons’. Forty percent of the children aged seven to fourteen said there was a difference. Some of these first CHATA results suggested that even young children have a general understanding of the need of history to explain things, that it is not just ‘a story’. On the other hand, a very interesting finding was a confusion in pupils’ understanding between causes of events and reasons for action; if causation is assumed by many students to be a species of agency, then unintended consequences are attributed to mistakes, the products of incompetent agency (Shemilt, 2009). While CHATA’s research did suggest that many young students often see that reasons for action can explain outcomes, as if intentions explained success or failure, caution is required. Some of the responses which appeared to treat reasons as interchangeable with causes did this by reference to volition, turning reasons into causes. Reasons, if powerful, make successful achievement of intentions more likely and if you want something badly enough, you are more likely to get it. This relationship between giving reasons for action and causal explanation of outcomes needs much more attention.

A simplified research-based model of progression would run from no distinction between statements of facts and explanatory statements, through a conception of senseless agency (identifying events with actions) and deterministic causal chains, towards the use of counterfactual reasoning and the recognition of contexts as well as background conditions to, ultimately, the understanding of causal concepts as theoretical constructs. At its highest level in school history, the epistemological and ontological dimensions of causal explanation would be acknowledged, that is, it would be recognized that the validity of every explanation is relative to questions posed as well as to what is known about the past (Lee & Shemilt, 2009).

The research into children’s conceptions and misconceptions about historical explanation and other aspects of historical understanding (Lee, 2005) points to important dimensions of children’s understandings that are particularly relevant pedagogically. Many of these supplement and extend the kinds of analysis that might most readily come to mind, drawing on the historiographic tradition (Lorenz, 2001). In addition to epistemic issues, relating to how we can come to know the past, the research on children’s thinking suggests that we should also attend to their ontologies—or to their models of what the past is, of how the world of the past is populated (e.g. with individual agents) and of the logics that processes in the past tend to follow (e.g. agen- tive explanation).

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