I’m in the business of words. As a reading and writing teacher, I’ve come to appreciate the power and potential of language. I have witnessed the empowerment for students when they strive for mastery with comprehending, speaking, and writing words. But, I think for our students, we sometimes create problems when we aren’t careful with the words we use with them. It seems like in my current role I’m experiencing this dilemma again and again, across contents and within contents.
My most recent experience centers on the words “correlation” and “causation”. I understand the statistical difference in these words, thanks to some Twitterverse input, but for me, and maybe I’m seeing a problem that isn’t really there, these words aren’t treated as distinct types of thinking for students. In a technical or science classroom, these words are essential to the observing, collecting, and analyzing of data. The scientific method and the formation of hypothesis are intrinsically linked to the thinking students must display as they progress from “correlation” to “causation”. The problem I encountered stems from my reading and writing instruction background. The pattern of organization typically seen in expository writing, cause and effect, doesn’t exactly match the relationship of “correlation” and “causation” seen in the technical or science classroom. I know it may seem like I’m splitting hairs, and quite possibly I don’t understand the relationship, but as I was working with students in a science classroom, my use of the word “cause” did not match the experiences and understandings of the students. I was confusing the words for the students. As I tried to deconstruct the relationship between these words, I turned to the recently released Next Generation Science Standards for guidance and clarification.
In Appendix G, under Cross-Cutting Concepts, the NGSS provides clarification on this essential thinking skill. According to the NGSS, “Any tentative answer, or ‘hypothesis,’ that A causes B requires a model or mechanism for the chain of interactions that connect A and B.” That sentence makes sense to me. Events don’t happen in isolation but instead create a domino effect. Where I’m puzzled is why the language “any tentative answer” is not called a correlation? Isn’t a” tentative answer” based upon observations that may or may not be causation? The NGSS continues by saying “A major activity of science is to uncover such causal connections, often with the hope that understanding the mechanisms will enable predictions . . .” So, to my understanding, the NGSS is asking students to understand the pattern of causal relationships in order to apply that thinking when new observations of phenomenon are made to move beyond simple correlations.
The NGSS does provide a scaffold, by grade bands, for the development of the relationship between causal and correlated events. The word “correlation” first appears in the grade 6-8 band as a way to “classify relationships” and that “correlation does not necessarily imply causation”. This scaffold is continued in grades 9-12 by having “students understand that empirical evidence is required to differentiate between cause and correlation and to make claims about specific causes and effects.” Students demonstrate this thinking when they “suggest cause and effect relationships to explain”.
Again, this seems to satisfy the writing instructor within me. Cause and effect is a pattern of organization that students can utilize to explain their thinking when writing for an expository mode. But NGSS muddies the water by saying “When students engage in scientific argumentation, it is often centered about identifying the causes of an effect”. The defense of a cause for an agreed upon effect is essential to developing scientific minds but is it argumentation?
But this creates a dilemma for my writing instruction brain. On page 1 of Appendix G of the NGSS, this appears:
2. Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation.
This immediately seems congruent with the Common Core writing standards and expository writing. Cause and effect is a pattern of organization that I’ve worked with kids consistently. It is a pattern of explaining thinking. The confusion lies when the NGSS mixes writing modes. Is “scientific argumentation” the same or different as rhetorical argumentation? Is everything really an argument? These issues are important to get right. If we as teachers can’t be crystal clear with our students, how can we expect the national standards to make the impact that we truly desire? Now is the time to have a national discussion that rectifies these conflicts in language.
Please feel free to continue the conversation on Twitter at @the_explicator or @kastidham.
Thanks for reading.