Help Students Analyze Complex Social Issues with this Great Graphic Organizer

Students conducting civic action projects often need to think through complex questions — why is this problem happening in our school (or community)? What part of it should we address in order to try to help solve it? Is this totally the fault of the individuals involved, or are there other influencing forces? Similar questions come up, of course, as students work to understand a character or event in a novel or a historical account.

One tool that savvy teachers introduce to help students think more deeply about an issue is the “root cause tree.” I don’t love all graphic organizers — they can constrict thinking as much or more than they promote it. But this one is pretty handy. Notice how the diagram encourages thinking about not just the causes of a problem, but also the causes of the causes. And there can be as many roots as may be needed to understand what is happening.

Of course, students may miss key factors, or include ideas that are inaccurate or prejudiced. That’s when the teacher can propose that it’s time for the kids to do some research to see if anything is missing or problematic.

Here’s an example of a tree on the destructiveness of gossip by two middle school girls.

A recent blog post elsewhere argues that giving students too much freedom can just frustrate them or abdicate our role as teachers. But this tool offers a great example of support we can provide while leaving open the opportunity for students’ thinking and decision-making. Which is essential to the inquiry-to-action projects that are so important to their growth as the active and responsible citizens our society needs.

Civic Action in Schools

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By Steve Zemelman, Director, IL Writing Project; author, “From Inquiry to Action;” co-author, “Subjects Matter” & “Best Practice;” Restorative Justice advisor

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