If you don’t know the story of Alphonse the camel, whose chronic back problems and other factors meant he couldn’t take the strain of an additional piece of straw to his load, you can find the full version on your search engine of choice.
I have been using Arthur Chapman’s model for teaching causation to year 13 and this has really improved their historical thinking. Students have been introduced to Alphonse lower down the school and are reintroduced to him at AS as they study the causes of the Russian revolution. However, it is still useful to revisit him at A2. Before they are given their first essay title, students read a story about poor Alphonse the camel, who has a wicked owner called Frank. Frank mistreats Alphonse (who is already suffering from a bad back due to an accident at birth). Finally, Alphonse dies when Frank places a straw on his already overburdened back. The students have to find all of the causes contributing to Alphonse’s death. They then categorise these into long, medium, and short-term and trigger causes. Finally, they have to decide which cause may have been the most important by applying counter-factual thinking. They remove each cause and assess how much difference this would have made to the outcome.
By this point, much hilarity and argument have ensued as students debate whether Frank is the bigger cause or Alphonse, who is a bit of a show-off and could have contributed to his own demise. As they know the story quite well by A2, having heard it several times before, they sometimes like to embellish the story with additional causes of their own! However, they are now able to discuss long, medium and short-term causes and argue counter-factuals with confidence. We then apply this to the long, medium and short-term causes of the French Revolution. Students have already studied these in previous lessons. They are given a table of causes, and they must complete the consequences in relation to the question of how far they agree with the view that it was Louis XVI’s failings as a monarch that primarily accounted for the strength of the challenge to absolutism in France.
Once their table was complete, they transferred their causes to a diamond nine grid, cut them out and sorted them into the order of importance. They were able to debate the importance of each cause with one another by applying counterfactual thinking and removing causes to see the impact this would have on the challenge that had arisen to absolutism in 1789. Students are then ready to start planning their essay. They are encouraged to link causes and to begin to think about creating a coherent structure.
They are reminded that to meet AO1a they need to “communicate knowledge and understanding of history in a clear and effective manner”. They work hard at this point to create appropriate links between sections of their essays. Finally, they are sent off to write their essays for homework. These cannot be submitted for teacher marking until they have used the generic mark scheme and marked them themselves. Once they have been marked by me, the students get their essays back minus the grade and must act on the feedback given before resubmitting.
Students don’t encounter Alphonse again during Year 13, but the methodology of analysing…
extract from October 2014 Edition of UKEdMagazine. Click here to view the full article free online.
Further reading: Chapman A (2003) Camels, diamonds and counterfactuals; a model for teaching causal reasoning Teaching History 112
Lesley Munro is Head of History at Homewood School & Sixth Form Centre in Tenterden, Kent. Find her on Twitter at @LesleyMunro4