We’re taking our 9th graders to a new building next year. It’s an old building, actually, but it’ll be new to them, and to the faculty team who will teach there for the next two years while our main campus undergoes renovations. We’re taking this opportunity to launch some new common practices. During a series of meetings this fall, we came up with the outline of our plan. In all of our 9th-grade classes, across the curriculum, we’re going to share practices designed to get all 9th graders to do the three things we identified as crucial to their long-term success in high school and beyond. Our shorthand designation for these goals: GYST, Collaboration, and CER.

GYST stands for Get Yourself Together. (Among the adults, we preferred “Get Your Sh*t Together.” Gallows humor.) In coordination with our new Advisory program, classroom teachers will teach and model organizational and goal-setting practices that will help our students to manage the complex demands of high school and to ask for the help they need when they need it. Collaboration is what it sounds like. We’re going to teach students, using common rubrics and assessments, how to participate effectively in teams.

CER stands for Claim-Evidence-Reasoning. We didn’t invent the formula, obviously, nor is it new to any of our 9th-grade teachers, all of whom have been teaching the logic of argument all along. What’s new is our commitment to use common language and some common instructional techniques to get students to use the formula correctly and consistently.

I noticed during our planning meetings that, of the three packages of skills and habits we’ve committed ourselves to, CER is the one about which teachers seem to have the most confidence. Everyone does it already, even if they call it Thesis-Evidence-Analysis, or some other variation on the theme. And everyone agrees that evidence-based reasoning, for which CER is our shorthand formula, is a skill we all consider a top priority. In fact, CER is the agreement that worries me most.

I worry about CER because, deployed badly, it encourages students to make and teachers to accept bad arguments. Here’s what I mean.

CER and Spurious Correlations

Timmy was slow to develop. His parents had him tested. He had indicators of autism. He had also recently had an MMR vaccination. His parents googled around on the internet, put two and two together, and decided that he was likely a victim of thimerosal poisoning. (Thimerosal is the preservative used in vaccinations.) They had a claim: thimerosal causes autism. They had evidence: Timmy got the shot, then got autism. They had reasoning: the mercury in the preservative caused damage to Timmy, similar to damage reported by other parents on social media. CER.  

What went wrong was spurious correlation. Timmy’s parents connected thimerosal and Timmy’s diagnosis — which, to make this true story even more interesting, was probably inaccurate — in a way that conforms to CER protocols but amounts to terrible thinking. This particular correlation has now been debunked, though not eradicated.

Our problem as 9th-grade teachers, particularly in Social Studies, is that CER alone doesn’t prevent us from encouraging our students to make the same kinds of spurious correlations in what we allow to pass for reasonable arguments. On the contrary, we’ve been doing it for years.

Consider this claim: Augustus Caesar was a successful ruler because he mustered a large army, built roads (or had them built), and instituted an imperial cult. That sounds like a high school history thesis, right? (I can provide evidence, if you’re interested.) In the examples I’ve seen, each of the three elements of Caesar’s rule — roads, armies, cult — is the claim in a body paragraph. In each paragraph, the student author cites as evidence reliable testimony to the effect that Caesar did these things. And then, our student author supplies the reasoning: roads made military transport efficient and facilitated trade, thereby providing positive and negative incentives for compliance with imperial rule. The armies are obvious enough, and the cult is a model of political propaganda.

That’s all perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, our student author has given us no evidence-based reasons to believe that any part of it is true. Let’s accept that Caesar built roads, a claim for which our student author has indeed provided evidence. (The fact that that evidence is second hand, mediated by scholars, is a consideration but not a concern. Let’s take the facts as established.) And let’s assume, further, that Caesar was indeed successful. The reasoning in this case, about the likely effects of roadbuilding, amounts to a plausible hypothesis. It could be so, that road building strengthened imperial rule, and so contributed to Caesar’s success. But our student has supplied no evidence that that claim is true. All we know is that Caesar built roads and was successful. Just like Timmy was exposed to thimerosal and had symptoms of autism.  

CER and Hypothesis Testing

Did Caesar’s road-building projects actually strengthen the empire? That’s an awesome question. In order to answer it for real, we need to do something more important and more challenging than the mechanical application of a CER structure to an argument. We need to do some hypothesis testing. We could do that in a number of ways. We could look for evidence of cases where newly-built Roman roads led to military victories or increased trade. That would give us a tighter correlation, and some reason to believe that there’s a causal connection between the two. That’s the narrative approach — what a traditional historian would do. Or we could treat our hypothesis as an answer to a proper Question Three and look for comparative cases that confirm or disconfirm our hunch that successful empires engage in road building and unsuccessful ones don’t, all else equal.

As you can see, real CER — real explanation, that is — is pretty daunting. It requires not just the application of a formula, but real thinking. The point, especially in a high school history class, is not to provide definitive answers to any of the explanatory questions we pose to our students or that we encourage them to ask for themselves. As CER training promises, our goal is to teach students how to answer questions well, and how to judge whether a purported answer is any good.  

“CER” is a formalism. It’s not wrong. On the contrary. It reminds us that we can’t just assert claims and expect to be believed. If we make claims about how the world works, we need to respect our audience enough to give them reasons to think so, too. The problem with CER as a teaching mnemonic is that it encourages teachers and students to check for form but not content. If it looks like an argument, it must be one.

There are genuine techniques for historical and sociological thinking, which can be done more or less skillfully. Our Four Questions are designed to make those techniques clearer and more accessible. CER is supposed to do that, too. If you teach that formula alongside the 4QM, and take your questions and claims seriously, your students will learn to test hypotheses and exhibit a healthy skepticism about arguments in general. If you just check the CER boxes in a mechanical way, you’re like to come down with a case of thimerosal poisoning. Trust me.