Duplo to watercolours: how the substantive might shape the disciplinary in students’ historical causal arguments

In a previous post, I argued that writing frames might be more effective when the teacher is clear regarding the particular historical second-order concept they want their students to focus on. For example, it might be beneficial to be precise about whether one is concentrating on the specific language of historical causation rather than more generic ‘explaining’ language associated more broadly with ‘making clear’, ‘explication’, or ‘elucidation’.  While it is clearly useful for students to be comfortable using connectives such as ‘also’ and ‘however’, these frames recommended by centralised initiatives such as the National Strategies for Literacy in History might only get students so far in constructing historical arguments distinct from those in science, geography, or indeed any other ‘non-fiction genre’.[i]

In writing that post, I was very deliberately trying to operate in a rich tradition of previous history-teacher curricular theorisation. As I discussed here, a number of history teachers in England from the mid-2000s became (either consciously or unconsciously) dissatisfied with generic writing frames that were falsely advertised as the language of historical argument.[ii] Instead, a number of these teachers adopted history’s second-order concepts as an investigative framework for their theorisation regarding language instruction. Teachers such as Woodcock (causation);[iii] Foster (change and continuity);[iv] Bradshaw (similarity and difference);[v] and many others began to identify the specific language students might require in order to respond in writing to the type of questions historians, by disciplinary convention, tend to argue about.

My current research involves trying to identify the language of causation that historians use in their arguments so that I might explicitly teach it to my students. While thus far I have been specifically focusing on the historiography of one particular topic (the Salem witch trials of 1692), I have found certain ‘chunks’ of causal language that I think might be generally applicable in causal arguments across history generally (see below). Similarly, I have also identified language regarding characterisation of causes (e.g. ‘precondition’[vi]); explanation of multicausality (e.g. ‘a perfect storm of factors’[vii]); or prioritisation of causes (e.g. ‘most of important of all’[viii]) that might also be transferable in this way.

Word grid causes

Any of this kind of subject-wide yet conceptually-precise language that historians use is, in my view, extremely useful for students to learn. But it is important to remember another reason why history teachers such as those I mentioned above began to move away from resources such as the National Strategies for Literacy.  Writing frames shorn from the specific context of a legitimate historical enquiry can lead to a marginalisation of the shaping effect particular substantive topics might have on historical arguments.[ix] Just as the teacher needs to consider the distinction between the generic and the historical, similarly they might need to consider the particulars of the higher-resolution of historical topics. For instance, the uncritical use of language mats – even if they are specific to a particular second-order concept such as causation – might lead to the teacher inadvertently deemphasising disciplinary language specifically valuable to causal enquiries on particular topics such as the Salem witch craze.

Let’s take a hypothetical example. Citing instances such as Elizabeth Knapp in Groton in 1672; the Goodwin children in Boston in 1688; and Kate Branch in Stamford in 1692; many historians of Salem have noted that while children and young adults suffering afflictions and making accusations of witchcraft in 17th century New England was unusual, it certainly was not unheard of either. Yet none of these other cases escalated into a full-blown witch hunt. One cause that distinguished Salem in 1692 was that powerful male figures such as the girls’ guardians (e.g. Samuel Parris and Thomas Putnam); examining magistrates (e.g. John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin); and presiding judges (e.g. William Stoughton) were willing to give the Salem girls’ accusations an unusually high amount of credibility.

In explaining the importance of these men’s role, a student relying solely on history-wide causal language such as the chunks I displayed above might write something like this;

Puritan leaders were worried that people in New England were becoming less devout which led to powerful male leaders in Massachusetts looking for scapegoats. Consequently, these leaders’ anxiety meant they were willing to listen to the girls’ accusations which caused the Salem witch hunt.

This example is, I think, fine. But how might we improve it? In my view, it has a certain artificiality because it is a manifestation of a type of ‘Duplo’ approach to constructing historical argument. First, take a substantive ‘fact’ block. Then slot in a general disciplinary ‘causal language’ block next to it. Repeat. Hey presto! We have a causal argument (see below).


Recently, a number of history teachers have begun to consider how a strong command of substantive knowledge manifests itself in students’ historical arguments. For example, in an already-seminal article Hammond discussed how strong substantive knowledge ‘flavoured’ her students’ historical claims.[x] In this vein, I’ve been looking at the historiography of Salem to see possible examples of how historians’ substantive knowledge ‘flavours’ their choice of disciplinary language so that I might be able to model it for my students. Consider the following example from Enders A. Robinson;

At the strategic level, the old-guard Puritans granted the authority under which the conspiracies operated. The beginning of 1692 saw the old guard running an outlaw government in New England, these men were the councillors, magistrates, judges, and high military officers. Only the old guard had sufficient authority to sanction the atrocities of the witch hunt.[xi]

Note Robinson’s choice of ‘granted authority’ and ‘sanctioned’ instead of, for instance, ‘resulted in’ or ‘led to’. We can find many other historians using similar verbs and nouns when explaining the Puritan old-guard’s role in the Salem witch hunt: ‘gave credence’;[xii] ‘gave (their) seal of approval’;[xiii] ‘affirmed’;[xiv] ‘endorsement’;[xv] ‘gave (their) solid backing’;[xvi] ‘lent their weight to’;[xvii] ‘gatekeeper’;[xviii] ‘put their weight behind’;[xix] ‘advocate’;[xx] or ‘gave the green light’.[xxi] In this particular context, this language is all clearly causal despite the fact that such nouns and verbs might not necessarily make sense in causal arguments in other historical topics. This lack of transferability is because this causal language is particularly ‘flavoured’ by substantive knowledge of the societal power structures of the late-17th century Puritan New England patriarchy. The girls’ accusations could not have led anywhere unless these powerful men had validated them. That potentially ‘flavoured’ argument, however, is shut down by the exclusive use of ‘flavourless’ language such as ‘due to’, ‘meant’, or ‘brought about’.

(Sidenote. The fact that historians often ‘hide the analytical ductwork’[xxii] by opting to use topic-specific causal verbs and nouns rather than overt and general ‘analytical’ language such as ‘led to’ might be one reason why academic history can often read as if it is narrative/descriptive while at the same time being highly explanatory and analytical).

So unlike the ‘Duplo’ model authentic historical writing is often more like working with two watercolour paints and sometimes failing to stay within the lines. To varying degrees, the colours often bleed into one another (see below);


In terms of planning, this enquiry specificity might have at least two ramifications for history teachers. First, a teacher can’t necessarily assume the language mats or word grids one might see on social media, in examination board guidance, or teacher-resource marketplaces can be treated as ‘off-the-peg’.[xxiii] The ones I have designed, for instance, were very deliberately created with particular enquiries in mind.[xxiv] But what may have worked effectively for my students arguing why the Nazis rose to power will not automatically be suitable for another teacher’s students explaining why William won the Battle of Hastings. The substantive content of one might shape the disciplinary in ways that would be inappropriate for the other. Instead, the teacher must use their professional judgement to use, adapt, or discard as required.

Ultimately, no language mat in itself can ever be a panacea. In fact, as previous history teachers have persuasively demonstrated grids might only be of limited use unless situated in the context of an enquiry that makes clear the disciplinary and substantive knowledge that sits behind such language’s use. Like any proxy, unless the rationale for its construction is understood any potential effectiveness will almost certainly be lost in transit.

Furthermore, teachers might also consider highlighting a small number of specific verbs or nouns especially relevant to the causes students will encounter in that enquiry that historians have used in their interpretations. Such language might make students move away from ‘Duplo’ writing toward authentic academic argument. It could also highlight to students the subtle interpretative choices historians make. But it might also serve to reinforce the substantive knowledge the students are required to know. Playing around with deceptively simple language such as ‘gave the green light to’, for example, might provide another access point to students struggling to grasp the notion of the Puritan old-guard’s gatekeeping role in this type of society.  In this sense, might not the linguistic also release the substantive?

A final thought. Language mats run the risk of encouraging students to visualise conceptual thinking as a ‘process’ or ‘skill’.[xxv] It might be all too easy for a student to think that when they encounter a new topic all they need do to answer a causal question is reach for their trusty toolbox, grab the appropriate ‘tool’ (i.e. the language mat), and apply the same repeatable, tried-and-tested processes for explaining why things happened in history. Such approaches, however, might lead the student to believe that historical substantive content is free-floating, inert information that does not affect the disciplinary; essentially another interchangeable slab students just need to set to work on. But this is not how historical argument always works. In reality, the disciplinary and the substantive often do not operate in discrete silos. Disciplinary conventions and unique substantive content meet, mesh, and modify one another in in order to construct historical knowledge.

[i] Department for Education and Skills. (2002). Key stage 3 national strategy – literacy in history. London: DfEaS p.vi & 21 Retrieved from http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/2379/7/sec_lit_hi_004602_Redacted.pdf

[ii] Carroll, J. E. (2017). ‘From divergent evolution to witting cross-fertilisation: the need for more awareness of potential inter-discursive communication regarding students’ extended historical writing’ The Curriculum Journal 28(4) pp.504-523

[iii] Woodcock, J. (2005). ‘Does the linguistic release the conceptual? Helping Year 10 to improve their causal reasoning’ Teaching History 119, pp. 5-14.

[iv] Foster, R. (2013). ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same: Developing students’ thinking about change and continuity’. Teaching History 151, pp. 8–16.

[v] Bradshaw, M. (2009). ‘Drilling down: How one history department is working towards progression in pupils’ thinking about diversity across Years 7, 8 and 9’. Teaching History, 135, pp. 4–12.

[vi] Baker, E. W. (2015). A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press pp.123-125

[vii] Ray, B. C. (2015). Satan and Salem: The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692. London: University of Virginia Press p.5

[viii] Hansen, C. (1988). Witchcraft at Salem. London: Arrow Books. pp.145-146

[ix]Counsell, C. (2011a). History teachers as curriculum makers: professional problem-solving in secondary school history in England. In Schüllerqvist, B. (Ed.) Patterns of Research in Civics, History, Geography and Religious Education (pp.53-88). Kalrstad: Kalrstad University Press.

[x] Hammond, K. (2014). ‘The knowledge that ‘flavours’ a claim: Towards building and assessing historical knowledge on three scales’. Teaching History 157: Assessment, pp. 18–25.

[xi] Robinson, E. A. (1991). The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft 1692. New York: Hippocrene Books.p.252

[xii] Hill, F (1996). A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. London: Penguin p.69

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Rosenthal, B. (1993). Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press pp.6-7

[xv] Ray op. cit. pp.46-47

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Norton, M. B. (2002). In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. New York: Alfred A. Knopf pp.306-308

[xviii] Ibid. p.72

[xix] Hoffer, P. C. (1996). The Devil’s Disciples: Makers of the Salem witchcraft trials. John Hopkins University Press: London.  p.103

[xx] Ray op. cit. pp.144-145

[xxi] Baker op. cit. p.30

[xxii] Lee, P. & Shemilt, D. (2009). ‘Is any explanation better than none? Over-determined narratives, senseless agencies and one-way streets in students’ learning about cause and consequence in history’ Teaching History 137, 42-49.

[xxiii] For example, one exam board has – without my permission, without crediting me, and without linking the article from which the resource came from – disseminated one of my resources suggesting that my language mat is applicable across topics when answering GCSE questions in the narrative mode. The resource was, in fact, not designed for this purpose at all. It was designed for causal A-Level arguments in the explanatory mode for students studying the Nazi rise to power. The resource, therefore, will likely be only of limited use for what the exam board claims.

[xxiv]  For example Carroll, J.E. (2016) ‘The whole point of the thing: how nominalisation might develop students’ written causal arguments’ Teaching History 162 pp. 16-24

[xxv] Both Counsell and Lee have discussed dangers of this tendency e.g. Counsell, C. (2000) Historical knowledge and historical skill: the distracting dichotomy. In Issues in History Teaching ed. J. Arthur and R. Phillips, 54-71. Abingdon: Routledge; Counsell (2011) op.cit.; Lee, P. (2005) Putting principles into practice: understanding history. In How Pupils Learn: History in the classroom, ed. M. S. Donovan and J. D. Bransford, 31-78. Washington DC: National Academies Press; Lee, P. (2011) History education and historical literacy. In Debates in history teaching, ed. I. Davies, 63-72. London: Routledge.








One thought on “Duplo to watercolours: how the substantive might shape the disciplinary in students’ historical causal arguments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s