Engaging In Argument With Cause and Effect


One goal of NGSS-aligned instruction is to teach in three dimensions – seamlessly incorporating Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and content (Disciplinary Core Ideas). That is, admittedly, easier said than done.  Pairing dimensions is one way to support three-dimensional instruction and ensure you are explicitly addressing each element. In my own work, I have found that the Science and Engineering Practice of Engaging In Argument From Evidence can be a great way to bring students’ attention to the important Crosscutting Concept of Cause and Effect.


Before you dive further into this article, be sure to check out:

Why Do We Need To Teach The Crosscutting Concepts? 

Crosscutting Concepts: Do’s And Don’ts.



Engaging in Argument from Evidence is one of the Science and Engineering Practices we should be embedded into our regular instruction as a way for students to develop a strong understanding of science content. 


In a recent workshop I attended, it was put this way — “argumentation is the process of forming explanations, and explanations are the final product.”  As such, argumentation is about diving into the data and using reason to draw out conclusions. It often involves comparing different claims by examining the evidence for each — identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each claim (or argument). 


For that reason, it is a perfect pair for Cause and Effect, because we know more often than not, more than one cause is at play in any effect.  And really, that is a foundational principle for the Crosscutting Concept of Cause and Effect.



Cause and Effect (Progression Across Grade Levels): Students begin in grades K-2 by learning that events have causes, and they participate in simple tests to gather evidence to support or refute their ideas about causes.  This graduates to regularly testing causal relationships in grades 3-5, recognizing that not all events that occur together may have a cause and effect relationship. Students recognize that for those that do, though, cause and effect relationships can help us explain changes we observe.  In grades 6-8, the concept of causation vs. correlation is developed. For events that have a true cause and effect relationships, that relationship can be used to make predictions. That said, phenomena can have more than one cause, and oftentimes cause and effect relationships can only be described using probability. 



Engaging In Argument: Impacts of Resource Availability

The Water Cycle - 5E & NGSS Aligned Activity Bundle (NGSS MS-ESS2-4)My instructional sequence that incorporates MS-ESS2-4 on the water cycle also addresses the concept of resource availability and its impacts on organisms (MS-LS2-1).  The availability of water (obviously impacted by the movement of water through Earth’s systems) affects the survival and reproduction of organisms individually, and populations at large.  Students explore this concept by engaging in another Science and Engineering Practice – Analyzing and Interpreting Data. In the lesson, students first rotate through stations where they are presented with data in some form or another — maps of rainfall and vegetation, rainfall records, satellite images of “greening” events in the desert, and data tables of rainfall measurements and reproduction indicators.  For each of these phenomena, students analyze the data to make connections between the availability of water and the impacts on the organisms and/or populations. 


After students begin to make sense of these content ideas themselves, the concepts are reinforced through an argumentation activity.  This activity focuses on identifying evidence to support claims. Students are given two claims – “Changes in the availability of resources may increase or decrease population sizes.” and “Changes in the availability of resources may impact reproduction rates.” Their job is to identify evidence from the stations’ work to support each of these claims.


Now, this may seem like an easy task, but in reality, students often struggle to identify evidence to support arguments.  Too often, we assign them a task like C-E-R and ask them to complete the whole thing, one big shebang. And typically, what you get from students looks like: 

Claim: a claim; 

Evidence: a few general statements supporting the claim;

Reasoning: and a repetition of the claim and those few general statements masquerading as reasoning

Students simply do not understand evidence and reasoning if we don’t engage them in practices to address each component individually.  One way to support students as they move toward independently constructing C-E-R responses is to break it down — focus on evidence in once activity, focus on claims or reasoning in another. For this task, students are simply digging up relevant evidence from several investigations (the work done at those stations) to support a specific claim. While they aren’t explaining their reasoning just yet, it does require them to develop some. Otherwise, how would they choose what evidence to include?


This simple task increases their familiarity with not only working with data but also using data as evidence.

Cause and Effect: Impacts of Resource Availability

Resource Availability: Exploring Water Resources In The Desert (NGSS MS-LS2-1)

But remember, we also want to include that last dimension, the Crosscutting Concept of Cause and Effect.  Spending some time explicitly teaching the Crosscutting Concepts is important. (Side Note: Sadler Science has a great article on explicitly teaching the Crosscutting Concepts here!) In my lesson, I introduce the indicators of causal relationships through a text and ask students to evaluate their evidence in light of the indicators. It is important to provide students the opportunity to practice and apply what they learn about causal relationships. Otherwise, it’s in one ear and out the other. 


This task prepares students to participate in the final activity, which brings argumentation and causal relationships together.


Three Dimensional Instruction: Engaging In Argument and Cause And Effect


The last task encourages open-ended thinking as students examine a set of cards that really could be a cause or an effect, depending on how you pair them.  These cards include statements like, “New cactus growth was much smaller this year than last year,” “Desert hummingbird populations dramatically declined,” and “Wolves returned to the ecosystem after a long absence.”


In small groups, students examine the cards and start brainstorming connections.  They identify which phenomena might be a cause, resulting in a different phenomenon (the effect).  But simply making these statements isn’t really enough to show understanding, right? Students are also tasked with suggesting what evidence may be necessary to definitively link the two events.


For example, let’s say students chose, “Jackrabbit populations increased,” as their cause. Thy identified “Coyote populations increased” as the effect.  What evidence would be necessary to link the two and suggest a causal relationship? Well, students would need to first establish that coyotes eat jackrabbits. If this isn’t something known, perhaps they would need to investigate coyote scat or set up cameras to observe coyotes hunting. (It’s not really important whether these investigations are economically feasible – we’re just brainstorming!) Students would also need to prove that coyotes actually ate more jackrabbits as the population increased.  More than that, they would need to exclude other explanations. (Did another prey population increase as well, which is actually responsible for the change in the coyote population?) And finally, looking at the order of events, students would need to establish a timeline. Jackrabbits increased first, and the coyote population followed.


The wonderful thing about this activity is that there really is no right or wrong answer if students can identify what would be needed to establish a connection.  They haven’t proven a connection, certainly, but they have generated ideas about what might prove a connection.  These ideas could easily be turned into investigations. 


As an extension to this task, students could incorporate additional Science and Engineering Practices like Asking Questions and Defining Problems and Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. Students could turn their lists of “necessary evidence” into questions to investigate.  They could then take those questions and determine which are actually feasible. They could plan out an investigation, identifying how they would collect evidence.  Even if they don’t ever carry out the investigation, participating in the planning process is addressing the Science and Engineering Practice and developing that skill. And none of those additional activities would need to take more than 10, 15, maybe 20 minutes.

Teaching in three dimensions doesn’t have to be hard.  Sure, it is at first. I will NOT discount that. It’s a challenge. But by identifying “pairs,” you can use each dimension to support the other.  By focusing on the elements within each Practice or Concept, you can address them within your unit timeline. Examining the Crosscutting Concept of Cause and Effect is a great way to address Engaging In Argument From Evidence with your students. And as you can see, taking it even a step further is always an option, too!