3-12, Critical Thinking, Education, Student Products

Causal Modelling

I’ve been lately trying to use more Integrative Thinking in class.  It bring about really deep discussions, and I like to see the students make visual models of their thoughts.  In the past few weeks, I have been working on “Causal Modelling” with my 3rd-5th graders with varying degrees of success.

You can see a short video of Causal Modelling in action here.  Basically, students try to consider all of the possible reasons for a particular situation or problem.  In the video, the topic is, “People Struggling to Afford Food.”  With student input, the teacher makes a web with this topic in the center and several nodes that name possible causes.  It quickly develops in complexity as the students volunteer causes for the causes and begin to see connections among causes.

This blog post by Heidi Siwak shows several examples of causal models diagrammed by her 7th graders for issues varying from gun violence (very topical!) to unfinished homework.

To start causal modelling with my own students, we worked on creating a class causal model about why Nemo gets lost in Finding Nemo.  Then I put students in groups to generate causal models about the fiction we were reading in each grade.  For my 5th graders, this meant they explained an event from The Giver.


After doing group causal modelling about fiction, I asked each grade level to apply it to “real life.”  My 3rd graders brainstormed recurring problems, such as a sibling interrupting them when they are playing with friends, and came up with multiple causes.  After breaking it down this way, they could see potential ways to avoid some of the precipitating events (sibling needing attention, for example), and potential solutions.

With my 5th graders, I had a different idea.  After reading this post from Heidi, I realized that the personal manifesto activity they were working on was the perfect opportunity for them to get a picture of why they believe what they believe.  Since we were about to have a 3-day weekend when many would be visiting with extended family, I sent them home with a rare homework assignment: pick one of your belief statements and do a causal model for why you believe it.  Think about your own experiences, what your parents believe, and even ask your grandparents and parents why they believe it (if that’s where it came from).

One student said to me, “What if it’s not from your parent?  What if it’s from you?”  I asked, “What’s the belief?”  She said, “Taking risks.”  So I explained how, when I was young, I had volunteered to do a monkey bar race at an amusement park.  Sneakily, the proprietors had greased the bars, so I fell off when I reached for the 2nd bar, landing in a pool of water.  I was humiliated.  Afterward, my mother bought me a coveted stuffed animal in the souvenir shop – not to make up for the embarrassment, but to reward me for trying.  That’s when I learned that it’s more important to try and fail than to do nothing at all.

The students came back from their weekend, nearly all having done the assignment in one form or another.  Some wanted to share it publicly, and some wanted to have a private audience with me to speak about the personal reasons for their beliefs.  I would definitely say that I learned a lot about each of them, and I hope that they learned more about themselves.

Overall, causal modelling helps students to grasp that “wicked problems” (as Heidi calls them) cannot be solved with sweeping generalizations.  “Why don’t they just…” rarely addresses all of the causes, or all of the deeply held beliefs that led to those causes.  It might help a few of our current leaders to keep this in mind. 😉



What is Your Manifesto?

I decided to help my students design their own manifestos again this year.  (Here is the link to last year’s post about this.)  To get them started thinking about their core beliefs, I first showed them this video from Gretchen Rubin, which I found out about from Larry Ferlazzo.

Then I started giving them words, and just asked them to write or draw whatever came to mind in their notebooks.  For example, “Leadership,” was one of the words.

When I said, “Mistakes,” I added, “and try not to just write what your teachers always say – like, ‘We always learn from our mistakes,’ or “Making mistakes helps us to grow.'”

There was silence.  Finally, one student said, “You’re really the only one that says that to us, Mrs. Eichholz.”  Several of the others nodded in agreement.  Then someone mumbled under their breath, “And means it.”

I was stunned.  I know I’ve heard other teachers say this.  I’ve witnessed it.  I’ve seen quotes in their classrooms.  It’s repeated all over social media.  How could I be the only one they are hearing this from?  How could these 5th graders, many who had attended this same school for six years, not have heard this message from anyone but me?

When I thought about it, I came up with several reasons.  First of all, many of these students have attended my weekly pull-out class for years.  I’ve definitely been consistent about saying that we need to turn mistakes into learning opportunities.  In fact, it’s on my own manifesto that I made last year:


Secondly, and more importantly probably, I don’t just say it.  I make a daily effort to praise the hard work that students do in my class and the mistakes they’ve learned from.  I let them use pen whenever they want so they often have a permanent record of their mistakes.  I try not to praise students who finish first, even if they get the whole thing correct.  Instead, I say, “Gosh, I guess I need to make it harder next time!”  I constantly tell my students about my own mistakes.  Sometimes I do hard riddles or math problems with them so they can see all of my “mess ups” as I try to figure them out.  Finally, we spend a lot of time on improving things – getting and giving feedback and making things better.

In a regular classroom, these things are hard to do.  The way our school system is set up, you are rewarded for perfection, not struggle.  Unfortunately, students know that you’re still going to get points taken off if you make a mistake, so it makes it difficult for them to embrace them.  And there is rarely time to spend on improvement if you want to stick to the scope and sequence.

I just read The Culture Code (a book I’ll be reviewing next week on this blog), by Daniel Coyle.  In the book, Coyle tells the story of Johnson and Johnson’s manifesto – which they call, “The Credo.”  The first part of the “Credo” states, “We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.”  According to Coyle, the company regularly reviews this “Credo” to make sure it still aligns with their mission.  It informs important decisions.  For example, when the Tylenol poisoning crisis happened, Johnson and Johnson took all of its Tylenol off the shelves at a cost of $100 million, despite the advice of many experts who thought this was not necessary.  It initially cost the company quite a bit, but they stood by their “Credo.”  When the public realized that this corporation valued the lives of its customers over its bottom line, market shares in Tylenol actually began to rise.

Like Johnson and Johnson, we educators need to decide what our beliefs are and make our actions consistent with them to the greatest extent possible.  If we want students to be willing to take more risks, become independent thinkers, we have to stop penalizing them for it.