World War One Blame: Causal vs. Contributing Factors

Risa Gluskin

Risa Gluskin has been teaching at York Mills C.I. in Toronto for the past 13 years. She is Assistant Curriculum Leader of Canadian and World Studies. Her favourite courses are grade 11 World History covering everything from Paleolithic times to the Middle Ages in Europe, grade 12 World History, covering everything else from the Renaissance on, and Challenge and Change in Society, a social science course that studies fascinating issues through the lenses of psychology, sociology and anthropology. 


For this cause-consequence focused lesson about who and/or what was to blame for World War One, I narrowed in on a particular guidepost of the Historical Thinking Concept (HTC): the difference between a factor making something more likely to happen and a factor directly causing something to happen. 


After my introduction and having read a few short excerpts from primary source accounts, students gathered information by reading two short secondary source interpretations of the origins of World War One. They then filled in a chart about many possible causes, ranging from countries, to forces, such as nationalism, alliance system, etc., to combinations of forces and/or countries. 

The in-role portion of the activity, where the lesson used to end, is relatively easy for students to manage. Having been divided into groups by country (Germany,Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Russia, Britain, France), students were instructed to first identify in-role reasons they were not to blame for the outbreak of the war, then identify those they did blame, and why. As always, students fully engaged in the in-role experience, but they also thought carefully about their reasoning. 

Knowing that I wanted to extend the lesson and to incorporate HTCs in a deeper way, I had students focus on trying to distinguish between actual causal factors and contributing factors. However, I didn’t want to just present the students with a blunt, broad task: go ahead kids, figure out which factors actually caused the war to happen and which just made it more likely. Instead I broke it down by having students follow a scaffolded path. 

The path involved having students weigh the importance of various influences, which is itself another guidepost of cause-consequence relationships. In my lesson, I had already pointed out the difference between long- and short-term causes, and trigger events. The focus now was to be on long-term origins. To prompt students I asked each group how far back they could trace the long-term origins of the war. It was only then, after each group responded orally, that I asked the students to decide whether the factors that had just been suggested had made the war more likely or had actually caused it. I did this in a socratic fashion. There was no written component. 

It should be kept in mind that there was no particular designated answer I was hoping to hear; the journey, one involving critical thinking, was more important than the destination. 


Considering this was somewhat of an experiment, I would definitely change things next time. In an ideal world I’d like to have more time. However, given that it’s not something that is plentiful in a jam-packed curriculum, I can squeeze efficiency into the lesson by having an additional worksheet in chart form on which students write out their findings pertaining to causal and contributing factors. This would certainly make it easier for them to study for the follow-up to this activity on the exam. 

Even if I planned to keep the lesson mostly oral the next time I do it I would take a few minutes and have students record their reflections on having gone through the causal/contributory determinations. Just a few lines jotted down could make a difference in what they take away from this experience.


Doing this type of contrast between “more likely” and “directly causing” is useful for any event where the origins are murky and convoluted or there are wildly differing interpretations by historians. It’s a great little tool to have in your back pocket as a history teacher that can be stretched or contracted to make it as deep or as simple as you desire. For more junior students I suggest scaffolding cause-consequence relationships even more by adapting the Concept Map activity from The Big Six (page 135) which allows students to link events in causal relationships using phrases such as “led to,” “was an underlying cause of,” and “put pressure on.”