Causality in the Classroom

Researcher studies student learning and understanding.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation   

We live in a complex world where sometimes it is difficult to connect our actions to their ultimate impact. This is especially true when the behavior involves many people, distance between causes and effects, a time delay or other complicating features.

“We walk around and see certain kinds of patterns and relationships, but our attention is constrained in each of these instances,” says Tina Grotzer, associate professor of education at Harvard’s graduate school of education and director of the Understandings of Consequence Project.  “We don’t necessarily see the connections between causes and effects when they are spread out, or happen over time, or are distributed among lots of different people.”

One example she uses to illustrate this involves the quintessential scene in the school cafeteria where many children are eating lunch and trying to talk to their friends. Their voices keep getting louder as they try to be heard above the voices of others. “There is a de-centralized agency spread across all of the children that organically results in too much noise--it is a form of emergent causality,” she says.

The pattern is an escalating one, with all of the kids contributing, and it finally draws the attention of those responsible for keeping order.  The children are chastised, and punished. 

“One of the difficulties of distributed causality is that individual intentions and emergent group outcomes are often unaligned,” she says, citing the work of educational research colleagues Mitchel Resnick and Uri Wilensky.  “The idea is that the children are all just intending to be heard.  No one is meaning to be too loud, but they all get yelled at for being too noisy, and told they can’t go out for recess. All of the kids are saying ‘it’s not my fault,’ and looking for the noisiest kid.  In some sense, it is no one’s fault, but, yet, it’s everybody’s fault. These kinds of complexities can be really hard to wrap your head around.

“But these experiences can have similar dynamics to some of the most intransigent problems that we face,” she adds.  “Consider climate change. When I jump into my car to go get groceries for my family, I’m not intending to contribute to climate change because of my carbon emissions, but ultimately that’s what I am doing. The individual intention is just like those kids in the cafeteria. I have individual level intent, but there is this emergent outcome from all these people around the world just doing their everyday thing.  None of us is necessarily aware of it, and none of us is tracking it.  We are all at fault, but nobody intends it.”   

Yet, today, we know about such connections. “You’re aware now, but you didn’t get that way by figuring it out on your own,” Grotzer says.

Grotzer hopes that her research will help people, especially children, use these experiences to build a broader understanding of the nature of causality--its features and patterns.  Working from a wealth of research in child development, she is identifying aspects of complex causality that children of different ages do understand, related everyday experiences that they have, and figuring out how to help them expand upon their understandings.

She is examining how “causal” understanding develops in “supported” contexts, such as the classroom, and how, specifically, it affects science learning with the goal of developing new curriculum.

“Why is it so important to go beyond their everyday understandings and actually focus on learning complex causalities? Our attention is pulled in too many directions in the everyday world and we tend to be efficient in our reasoning,” she says. “Unless we stop to reflect upon the patterns, to trace out extended impacts, and to reason over time, we end up reducing complexity to simpler patterns.

“For example, understanding climate change involves reasoning about non-obvious causes,” she adds.  “Because you can’t see it every single day, it’s harder to keep it in mind.  When you start to see things slowly changing, you get lulled into thinking: this is just sequential, and I can deal with it over time. It’s too easy to become anesthetized if it plays out over time.”