Using an Inquiry Approach to Teach Historical Thinking Concepts (Cause and Consequence)

Ronald Martinello

I am currently the History/Geography head at  St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School in Cambridge, Ontario. I teach History, Law and Civics. I am in my 26th year of teaching.

The new Ontario curriculum not only has an emphasis on teaching historical thinking, it also requires an inquiry based approach to teaching/learning. This is a lesson that attempts to meld the two through an examination of the effects of the Cold War. The historical thinking concept I wanted to examine was cause and consequence, more specifically I wanted to students to examine whether some of the consequences were Reactions or Over-reactions. I wanted them to examine some of the ways Canadians and Americans reacted to the Cold War and to determine whether these reactions were reasonable.

In previous lessons when examining issues like significance, I would provide the criteria students needed to make analyses. In this one, I asked the students to brainstorm their own criteria then use these pieces of criteria for their analyses. The framework I used was to ask students the following question for inquiry: What criteria would you use to determine whether something was an appropriate reaction or an over-reaction? This proved to be a real challenge for the students who were used to criteria having already been established for them or who had experience in developing success criteria which was used to judge the quality of work. This took them into a bit of a different realm. But, eventually, the class came up with the following criteria:

  1. Was the reaction rational (this of course required two things: an understanding of the word rational, and an ability to measure whether something is rational).
  2. Does the evidence support the reaction?
  3. What did people at the time think of the reaction?
  4. What do people now think of the reaction?
  5. Was the reaction overly emotional in response?

I tried my best not to filter any of the responses, but I did try to put them in language which was understandable. Regardless, this was the class criteria. Our next step was to apply the criteria to a series of Cold War situations and reactions.

Situation 1. I showed the class a picture of Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet clerk in Ottawa, who, in 1945, revealed an extensive Soviet spy ring operating in Canada, the United States and Great Britain. At first, I showed the picture of Gouzenko wearing a hood to mask his identity. After brainstorming who this might be (responses ranged from a man who had a facial disfigurement to a man waiting to be hanged to a man who was afraid of being identified, I showed a clip of his appearance on the Canadian television show, This Week Has 7 Days, 21 years after his revelations. In the clip, he still wears a hood to hide his identity and partway through the interview he hears the clicking of cameras and begins to nervously question who the photographers were. There appears to be some paranoia on his part. At this point, the students are asked to apply their criteria of reaction v over-reaction. Was Gouzenko’s reaction 21 years after his revelations an over-reaction? Here is the link to the clip:

Sitation 2. I showed a clip of the detonation by the Soviets of a massive atomic bomb, the largest in its history to that time. Then I showed two maps. One map showed a view of the globe from the perspective of the North Pole. Most of our maps show a global perspective of west to east. This perspective shows Canada lying between the Soviet Union and the United States. The next map showed a string of radar stations along Canada’s northern border that belonged to the joint Distant Early Warning System (the DEW Line). Was the creation of this line of radar stations an overreaction? The clip I used for the detonation of the atomic bomb is:

Situation 3. I played an audio clip as Julius and Ethel Rosenburg awaited their execution on the night of June 19, 1953. Not only were they accused and convicted of delivery secrets of atomic weaponry to the Soviet Union, they were the only two civilians executed during the Cold War by the American government. The question for the students was whether the executions were overreactions. The clip for the audio clip is:

Situation 4. I showed the classic Civil Defense feature Duck and Cover ( The students took quite a bit of delight in viewing the instructions that were given to students in case of an atomic attack. Was this form of Civil Defense an overreaction?

Situation 5. Finally, I showed a video clip of a family that spent seven days in a fallout shelter. The father was in the business of building fallout shelters so he decided that his family of 10 (two parents and eight children) would spend a week in their own fallout shelter to test it out. We spent some time in class identifying what would be in their ideal fallout shelter, then asked the question: Was the construction of fallout shelters an overreaction? This is the clip I used for this segment:


In a debriefing I had the following day, these were the results:

Igor Gouzenko’s reaction was reasonable. (vote: 19-4)

The establishment of the DEW Line was a reasonable reaction. (vote: 19-1)

The execution of the Rosenburgs was an over-reaction. (vote: 15-8)

The establishment of Duck and Cover was a reasonable reaction. (vote: 13-9)

The creation of fallout shelters was a reasonable reaction. (vote: 18-4).


I know the votes don’t match. I guess I had some students abstain. What I can conclude was that my students, for the most part were trying to understand how a person at the time would have reacted to the fear of atomic warfare. Nonetheless, it was an interesting exercise in combining inquiry and historical thinking.