The Richest Man in the 14th Century: Teaching Causation in History

"Kankan Musa went on his journey, about which there are many stories. Most of them are untrue and the mind refuses to accept them. One such story is that in every town where he stopped on Friday between here and Egypt he built a mosque on that very day. It is said the mosques of Gundam and Dukurey were among those he built." 

Ok, here's a quick pop quiz. 

In Mahmud Kati's historical account where did you see examples of causation? What constituted a cause? What constituted an effect? How would you describe both? Was the cause immediate or long-term? What about the effect?

If you mentally noted that Mansa Musa's journey, i.e his Hajj, was a cause and the construction of mosques every Friday was an effect you are on the right track.

Why Causation?

Causation is an essential tool for understanding historical events, and encompasses a basic skill of historical thinking that my course requires of its students. By most of my students' accounts it is not a difficult tool to master. I'd venture to say that all of my students have heard about cause and effect relationships prior to entering high school. The goal of my teaching this skill then isn't introduction, but rather sophistication. I like to tell my students, "Take me farther, what else can you tell me?" In this sense a discussion about causation becomes a discussion of not only recognizing patterns that fall into cause and their effects, but also how we can describe these relationships in terms of their duration as well as implications for change and continuity.

How to approach this? Why not use a figure like Mansa Musa? The students love the story of this historical figure, his immense wealth, the tall tales surrounding him, and of course my ever-memorable impersonation/dance of Mansa Musa "spending 'fliff' like a sultan." In my preparation for our discussion of West Africa and Islam in the postclassical period I came across a great activity for teaching causation through the lens of Mansa Musa and the West African region. 

I love this activity for several reasons:

  1. It's a great activity for kinesthetic group work.
  2. It has the students practice chronological grouping by placing the events in chronological order.
  3. It has the students practice thematic grouping by reordering the events into causes and effects, and later immediate vs. long-term causes and effects.
  4. The final collection of student responses to the board provide for an opportunity to see larger implications of change and continuity over time.

Here's what I noticed as I used this activity:

The chronological sort took some time. My students made excellent use of their notes and textbook, but I didn't have a single group of students get the chronology perfectly right. So don't get hung up on it. The real reward of this activity is the interaction with the student groups as they are discussing and defining cause vs. effect and types of cause and effect (immediate vs. long-term).

The students are told to define Mansa Musa's Hajj as a turning point. Sorting cause and effect becomes simple then: if it came before the hajj it's a cause, if after, it's an effect. The simplicity of that division makes the initial thematic sort pretty quick. The important thing to keep in mind is that the turning point is crucial. Encourage your students to consider the sorting of immediate vs. long term cause and effect as it relates to the turning point. This will help them a great deal as it aids them in making sense of how causation relates specifically to Mansa Musa. 

Long-Term cause to Mansa Musa's Hajj: 8th century Islamic conversion of the North African Berbers.

Short Term Cause of Mansa Musa's Hajj: The return to Timbuktu with Arab architect al-Saheli.

Clever Student Z: "But Mr. Walker, depending on which events we look at there are immediate and long-term causes throughout. The architect could've been considered a cause for the use of bricks in mosque construction."  

Mr. Walker: "I totally agree and applaud your use of causation Z, but remember this activity is all about Mansa Musa's Hajj; that's our turning point! Apply causation to that turning point!"

What about Change and Continuity?

By far the best part of this activity is the display of student responses, given as written lists of events on the board, and the post-activity discussion. Why? The discussion allows for a moment to define and identify the change and continuity. As the CCOT essay can be particularly challenging for the uninitiated student I found this discussion to be a great way to talk about how change and continuity are entities that can be defined in terms of their nature:

What is change? What is continuity?

-Is there a clear starting point or ending point?
-What evidence of change or continuity do we see?
-What is the duration of both?
-How do we describe change? Is it gradual? Immediate?

With regard to Mansa Musa take a look at the list of causes vs. effects, what continuities do you see?

-The presence of Islam early on in the region (early Berber and Ghana elites/merchants).
-The presence of Islam later on in the region (class wide conversion in Mali and later Songhay)
-The existence of trade networks early on (N-S Berbers to Ghana)
-The existence of trade networks later on (N-S & E-W trade routes, Timbuktu as an entrepĂ´t)

What changes do you see? Consider our list before:

Long Term:
-Islam was not only present but its diffusion expanded to incorporate larger populations of people.
-Trade was not only present but it too was expanded (more routes, greater cities like Timbuktu)

Short Term (immediate):
-Mansa Musa's post-hajj diplomacy policies
-The shift to brick-structed mosques
-Mali merchants shift to Arab style of dress

My students left the classroom with an enriched understanding of the region in the postclassical period, and a newfound respect for the centrality of Mansa Musa's Hajj as an example of Change and Continuity Over Time (CCOT). I hope your class will have a similar response to this activity. Good luck with causation!

Full Disclosure: I'm a 2nd year WHAP teacher and I borrowed this lesson idea from some files shared by the amazing WHAP teacher community. Here's a link to the Mansa Musa Cause and Effect Activity I gave to my students. As a precursor to this assignment my students and I made extensive use of the three documents about Africa in the postclassical period. Mahmud Kati's collection of oral historical accounts of Kankan Musa was especially enlightening and at times entertaining.

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