Source: Handbook on Teaching Social Issues, NCSS Bulletin 93, Chapter 11, "Designing Issue Based Unit Plans" by Joseph J. Onosko and Lee Swenson. Reprinted with permission of the Publications Department of the National Council for Social Studies, 3501 Newark Street. NW, Washington, D.C. 20016-3167. Copyright 1996.

Appendix A:3 week unit plan

Footnotes for NCSS Bulletin

Teaching Resources Index

Handbook on Teaching Social Issues

NCSS Bulletin

edited by Ronald W. Evans and David Warren Saxe

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Joseph J. Onosko
Lee Swenson



"How to" discussions of planning too often focus on the daily lesson rather than on the unit's overall design, whether it be among social studies teachers in schools or in practitioner journals and even in some instructional methods books. The unit becomes nothing more than the sum total of daily lessons addressing various facets of a topic, event, or period of time. When this orientation to planning is combined with a bloated curriculum and didactic instruction, is it any surprise that student learning is fragmented1, superficial2, and passive3? While we readily acknowledge that numerous other barriers in and out of school contribute to this kind of student learning (Gross, 1989; Onosko & Newmann, 1994; Shaver, Davis &Helburn, 1979), we believe that ill-conceived unit design plays an important role.

In this chapter we provide a 5-part framework for issue-based unit planning that enables daily lessons to become more than the sum of their parts, and that promotes active, cohesive, in-depth student learning. The five main features of the framework are:

1. a central unit issue

2. an introductory "grabber"

3. lessons that link to the central issue

4. richly detailed source material; and,

5. one or more culminating projects.

A sample unit plan is also provided to illustrate this design model.

II. A Central Unit Issue Rationale

Too many social studies units are designed around a list of facts, names, concepts, events, and/or topics. This often leads to fragmented teaching and learning, broad and superficial content coverage, and lower-order cognitive tasks. Units designed around a central issue, however, provide a distinct shape or "backbone" that link daily lessons into a cohesive whole.4 A central issue also ensures that students will be faced with an intellectual challenge, for without a challenging task, there is little motivation or need to think. In addition, the exploration of an issue serves to check content coverage, thereby reducing the likelihood of fragmented, superficial treatment of subject matter. A reduction in coverage is necessary if students are to develop dispositions and skills associated with higher-order thinking (Newmann, 1988; Onosko, 1991; Wiggins, 1989). Finally, teachers become facilitators of student inquiry and knowledge construction (rather than dispensers of ready-made understandings) when units possess a central issue.

Consider the potential for fragmentation and superficial understanding in a unit designed around the topic, The Revolutionary Period. As stated, the topic provides very little direction for teachers and students. All social, political, religious, geographic, and economic aspects of the period are appropriate for study. (History textbooks usually reflect this encompassing approach.) When a unit lacks focus, too often the teacher's content selection is diverse, lengthy, and fragmented. Worse yet, no selection at all occurs as the teacher indiscriminately attempts to cover everything. Bewildered students during and after such an experience typically ask: "How does everything fit together?", "I'm confused—what does this have to do with what we did the other day?", or "It seems that all we do is memorize all these events from the past." Even many teachers have difficulty explaining how their daily lessons link together into a coherent whole. Students are reduced to consumers of fragmented bits of information and ideas rather than challenged to become productive thinkers and problem solvers.

Compare the above topical approach to an issue-based approach framed around the following question, "Were the Colonists justified in Revolting from England?" Knowing they must work throughout the unit to answer this challenging question, students are engaged from the start.5 Students must learn about the contentious relations between England and the colonies, assume the perspectives of both sides, consider the legitimacy of civil disobedience in this and possibly other contexts, and then decide whether they could support the actions of the revolutionaries. The central issue enables the teacher and students to identify (and therefore narrow) what content is needed for study (i.e., British and American actions that generated tension and the underlying rationales for these actions), and provides a purposeful and challenging reason for studying the period (i.e., to take a position on the central issue).6

Not only is it more difficult to control content when units are structured around a topic rather than an issue, there is a greater chance that controversy will be minimized or avoided altogether. For example, the Vietnam War could be taught as a matter-of-fact, "and-then-this-happened" serialization of events, or students could be asked to summarize the views of the Johnson Administration, Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong, the student war protesters, WWII veterans, etc., without having students themselves think about their own views or consider the validity of the perspectives they have summarized. However, when an issue structures a unit of study (e.g., Was U.S. Intervention in Vietnam justified?), controversy assumes a prominent place in classroom activities. In short, social studies topics become opportunities for inquiry only when specific unresolved issues are raised.

Finally, a central unit issue helps teachers control the urge to address too many issues during a unit of study—particularly ancillary or tangential issues. For example, instead of focusing analysis on whether or not colonists were justified in revolting from England, some teachers might add the following marginally related issues: What enabled the colonial militia to defeat the better equipped and trained British forces? Should John Adams have defended the British soldiers implicated in the Boston Massacre? Was France justified in providing aid to the colonists during the Revolution? Could the War have been won without the military leadership of George Washington? How should Loyalists have been treated during the war? and, Was it in the best interest of Native Americans to fight on either side during the War? While each of the above issues can provide an opportunity for serious inquiry, the sheer number and diversity of issues precludes its occurrence—unless, of course, a semester is devoted to the American Revolution! The result is fragmented and superficial treatment of complex issues. Typically, it is coverage pressure that compels teachers toward over-inclusion during unit design.7 Structuring a unit around a central issue can check this tendency and ensure directed, sustained, and challenging inquiry.

Table 1 offers examples of how topics can be transformed into central issues.

Table 1: Transforming a Unit Topic into a Unit Issue



The Women's Movement

Has the Women's Movement of the last three decades helped or hurt American society?

Exploration in the New World

Are the New World explorers to be praised or condemned for their efforts?

The First Amendment and Free Speech

When, if ever, should free speech be limited?


Immigration: Who should get in and Why?

Global Pollution

What should the U.S. do about global pollution?

The Legislative Branch

Does Congress have too much power?

The Cradles of Civilization

What makes a culture a "Civilization"?


Creating A Good Central Issue

Issues in the social studies can be classified in a variety of ways. Some issues are grounded in the past (e.g., What alternative, if any, would you recommend to Jackson's "Indian" removal policy?); others involve the present (e.g., How should nuclear waste be disposed?); while others project into the future (e.g., What would happen if abortions were outlawed?). Many issues can be classified as disciplinary as they emerge from or are linked to scholarly work in particular disciplines (e.g., from economics—Is raising the prime lending rate the best way to control inflation? or from anthropology—Were Neanderthals absorbed into the Cro-Magnon population or killed off?). Other issues are interdisciplinary and require the appropriation of information and ideas from two or more fields of study; for example, Should all-girl math classes be created to improve girls' math achievement? (education, law, psychology, sociology, political science). Policy issues (e.g., Should the U.S. accept gays in the military? Should Town X build a new pool?) and perennial issues (e.g., When does public safety override the rights of the individual? When is civil disobedience justified?) have also been identified and recommended for study. Issues can also be classified as primarily factual (e.g., Would an embargo have Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait?), definitional (e.g., What is a U.S. vital interest?), ethical (e.g., To what extent should the state help the unemployed?), legal (e.g., Were Bakke's constitutional rights to equal protection violated?), or aesthetic (e.g., What makes a work of art a masterpiece?). Presumably, social studies teachers will explore many of the above types of issues with their students.8

Four criteria to keep in mind when creating an issue are suggested below.

1. Is it Controversial? Because issues are debatable (by definition), this criterion may seem quite unnecessary. However, it is sometimes unclear if a question selected for study constitutes an issue. Assess whether or not multiple perspectives exist; that is, can reasonable arguments be constructed which reflect opposing viewpoints on the question. If opposing perspectives cannot be identified, is it due to an inherent lack of controversy in the question or the teacher's (or students') lack of current understanding? As an example, the question, "Did the New Deal End the Great Depression?" is not an issue because most historians agree that WWII was the decisive catalyst of economic recovery. A much more debatable question (and therefore issue) is the following: "Was the New Deal a failed social experiment?" Here students must weigh the benefits and costs of a variety of federal programs, consider philosophical issues regarding the appropriate size and role of government, and so on. Checking the "debatableness" of a question (or proposition) in the early planning stages of a unit will reward teachers and students with more lively, engaging discourse later on.

2. Is the Issue Important? Defining what is an "important" issue is beyond the scope of this chapter; however, the Handbook's introductory chapter attempts to address this difficult matter. In light of the immense size and contentious nature of the social studies field, it is unlikely that consensus will ever be reached on what counts as an important issue. We defer to the judgment of social studies teachers in the selection of issues for study, acknowledging that (a) reasonable people will disagree on what counts as an important issue, and that (b) even if consensus could be reached, the set of agreed-upon issues would probably exceed what could be thoughtfully explored. Nonetheless, we encourage teachers to consider the following questions when identifying issues for study:

Is it an issue that has been debated in the past and continues to be debated? In other words, is it a persistent, enduring issue? Examples include the following: What resources should be publicly owned and how should their use be regulated? When is the state justified in limiting the free expression of its citizens?

Is it a matter of public concern that requires civic judgment or decision making? For example, civic judgment and action are necessary when disagreement arises over the placement of a new town dump, a state roadway initiative, a Congressional bill, and so on.

Do scholars in a discipline or across disciplines tend to agree that the issue is important? Issues that capture the attention of most scholars in or across disciplines are probably worthy candidates for study. As an example, consider the following: Will continued depletion of the ozone layer lead to catastrophic global warming? or, to what extent does television violence contribute to violence in society?

Is an understanding of the issue likely to promote students' development? A wide range of issues have the potential to help students become more mature and socially responsible. Issues that might serve this purpose include: What responsibilities do you have to yourself and society? For the most part, is peer pressure a good or bad thing? Are some moral beliefs better than others or are they all just opinions?

3. Is the Issue Interesting? If the number of important social studies issues exceeds what can be thoughtfully explored with students, then select a subset of important issues that students are also likely to find interesting—and that the teacher already finds interesting (especially since teacher enthusiasm can significantly influence student learning). Having identified an issue of importance and interest, further enhance student interest (and motivation) by constructing a provocative phrasing. Compare, for example, the following two questions involving similar analyses: "What Caused the American Revolution?" and "Did the Founding Fathers Revolt Because of Greed?" Student interest is more likely to be perked by the irreverent suggestion that greed motivated the founding fathers compared to a rather bland and all-too-common query about causation.

Interest can also be enhanced by phrasing the issue in a memorable way. Take, for example, the following issue on homelessness stated as a proposition which is provocative, but not memorable: "There are actually very few economic, political, social, or religious efforts that our government can attempt to help solve the problem of homelessness in the United States today." More memorable ways to state this issue include the following: "Government's efforts to help the homeless are futile," "What policies do you recommend to help the homeless?" or "How would you combat homelessness if you were the President?"

Finally, consider weaving an ethical dimension into central issues as students cannot resist invitations to make assessments of right v. wrong, good v. bad, proper v. improper, and so on. For example, most students would prefer to grapple with the ethically-charged question, "Would you have supported or protested the Vietnam War Effort?" than the factual question, "What primarily led Americans to either support or protest the War?" Both queries contain issues; however, the latter is a factual issue focusing on the reasons for American support or opposition to the war, whereas the former requires both an understanding of these reasons and an ethical judgment of the appropriateness of U.S. involvement.

4. Can the Issue be Researched Effectively? Even the most important and interesting issues are rendered useless if resource materials cannot be acquired or are written at a level inappropriate for students. Successful issue analysis requires materials that reflect the perspectives and underlying rationales of the competing "camps," not just the viewpoint of one side or a very select few. These materials help trigger student interest and must promote student expertise. Presumably, important facts and ideas related to the issue will be revealed and contested areas explored. These materials might include lively readings, such as eye-witness accounts and other primary source materials, or images and pictures that provide a "visual text" for students. Some "digging" by the teacher prior to actual study can help determine if sufficient materials are available. Note that most textbooks fail as resources for issues analysis because they typically contain inadequate detail, are rarely framed around issues, and do not present competing perspectives when they do address issues (Kahane, 1984; Loewen, 1995).

Ill. An Introductory "Grabber"

An introductory grabber is an activity at the very beginning of a unit that draws students into the material and introduces the unit's central issue. The grabber might involve a film clip, primary document, short story, slide show, set of data, song and lyrics, brainstorming session with students, simulation, poem, quote, political cartoon, writing activity, field trip, or guest speaker. Whether brief (10 minutes) or long (1 or 2 class sessions) and whatever the format, an effective grabber triggers student interest in and reveals the teacher's enthusiasm for the upcoming unit. Introductory grabbers may include a brief look at some of the perspectives or positions one might adopt on the central issue. Students themselves may be asked to take a preliminary stand orally or in writing, knowing, of course, that it is preliminary and that viewpoints are subject to change as the investigation details perspectives and reveals new information.

The opening lessons of a unit are most critical for unit success. Failing to capture student interest and imagination may result in students "checking out" or remaining marginally engaged for the remainder of the unit. Too many teachers expend their greatest effort at the end of a unit during "mop up," "salvage the unit" review sessions rather than at the beginning when the crucial task of engaging minds must take place. The assumption behind the need for a grabber is that poor student performance in social studies is due primarily to some combination of student disinterest and low motivation, not deficiencies in students' cognitive capacities, abilities, or prior knowledge (Dweck, 1986; Keating, 1994).

A Classroom "Grabber"

For a variety of innovative and effective practical ideas on how to increase student engagement throughout a unit of study, see Bower, Lobdell & Swenson's (1994), History Alive. An example of a unit grabber is provided below:

Begin class by showing students 6-10 slides depicting life during the Industrial Era. Some slides convey a very positive image of the era (e.g., robust, clean, engaged workers forging steel, or ships and trains busily hauling cargo), while others reflect appalling working and living conditions (e.g., children standing at an assembly line, crowded tenements). Following an analysis of each slide, pose the unit's central issue: Was the Industrial Revolution Good for the United States? Drawing upon information culled from the slides and prior knowledge, students brainstorm possible "pro" and "con" responses. End class by informing students they will eventually be asked to take a position on the issue. Briefly summarize for students some of the interesting primary and secondary source materials they will study during the unit to help them in their analysis (e.g., diary accounts of life during the period, film excerpts). Ask students to think about the kinds of additional information they will need to better inform their decision making (e.g., infant mortality rates, average worker salaries, and other quality-of-life indicators before and during the Industrial Revolution).


IV. Connecting Lessons to the Unit's Central Issue

Structuring a unit around an issue increases the likelihood but does not guarantee that individual lessons will add up to more than the sum of their parts. To assume a purpose beyond their own internal coherence, lessons need to be sequenced in ways that advance students' understanding of and ability to answer the central issue. There is no one correct way to sequence lessons to achieve this purpose, primarily because there is no one correct way to think about an issue. However, we provide a few general curriculum and instructional suggestions on how to connect lessons to the central unit issue.

Curriculum Suggestions

Identify competing arguments and perspectives advanced by opposing sides to an issue. These perspectives can serve to guide the design of daily lessons. For example, students in a psychology class might address the question, "Why do we dream?" Two or more lessons could be devoted to Freud's theory that dreams represent repressed ideas and experiences that the ego attempts to keep submerged in the unconscious. Next, students might spend two or more days exploring Jung's view that dreams are symbolic expressions (not repressions) that provide important opportunities for self-discovery, individuation, and wholeness. Other perspectives might include Adler's view that dreams provide insight into impending decisions (rather than reflect unresolved conflicts from the past), or Crick's dismissal of dreams as a series of meaningless images resulting from REM and other brain processing activities. Following exposure to a handful of theorists, students would begin to formulate their own position on the nature and purpose of dreams.

A second way to link lessons is to identify key concepts, events, persons, and other terms that students need to effectively address the central issue. These key elements then serve to structure daily lessons. They should not be taught as ends in themselves, but rather explored in the context of students' growing understanding of the issue. For example, in a unit exploring the question, "Were the Colonists Justified in Revolting from England?", students must consider a series of British and American actions and reactions (e.g., Sugar Act, Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, Boston Tea Party, Boston Massacre) and also come to understand important concepts (e.g., virtual v. direct representation, social contract, civil disobedience) in order to answer the central issue.

A third approach that is probably least familiar to teachers but may be the most important is to identify the various sub-questions and sub-issues that need to be analyzed in order to effectively address the central issue. As noted earlier, Newmann & Oliver (1970) have provided a very helpful conceptual model that distinguishes between five types of issues: policy, ethical, definitional, factual, and legal. For example, to address the policy issue of whether or not State X should adopt the death penalty, a number of related sub-issues emerge: Will the death penalty reduce a state's homicide rate? (factual issue); When, if ever, is a state justified in taking a human life? (ethical issue); By what legal means can an execution be stayed? (legal issue); and, What is the difference between 1st and 2nd degree murder? (definitional/legal).

Regardless of the method used to coherently link lessons, the teacher (and eventually the students) must identify and understand the competing perspectives, important sub-questions, and key concepts and terms related to the central issue if honest, authentic inquiry is to occur. The teacher must also ensure that students are exposed to "best case" presentations of the various perspectives, though the order in which they are explored can vary.

Instructional Suggestions

V. Richly Detailed Source Material

What is richly detailed source material? One way to describe these materials is in relation to the dominant social studies resource—the textbook! Textbooks typically exhibit a paucity of detail and are rarely framed around questions or issues. The presentation of material often lacks coherence or meaningful organization within and across chapters. Textbooks tend to make claims and offer conclusions with little empirical or logical support and, therefore, are of little help in promoting students' critical thinking (Kahane, 1984). Concepts are presented but go undefined, or concepts are defined but examples are not given. The writing is typically banal and devoid of controversy (Fitzgerald, 1979; Tyson-Bernstein, 1988), and on rare occasions when issues are mentioned, competing perspectives are not summarized. Too often the cumulative effect is fragmented and superficial learning by disengaged students.

Richly detailed source material ("rich detail"), on the other hand, triggers student interest and promotes students' subject matter expertise. Students learn about competing viewpoints and their underlying rationales. Important facts are stated and contested factual claims explored. Concepts receive elaboration, including the presentation of examples, counterexamples, and analogies. Rich detail also facilitates students' empathic entry into issues that might otherwise have remained personally remote and overly intellectual. Rich detail includes lively readings, such as eye-witness accounts and other primary source materials, or images and pictures that provide a "visual text." In short, rich detail helps students become and remain interested in exploring and developing a perspective on the unit's central Issue.

Examples of rich detail from the sample unit on cults (see Appendix A) and from other illustrative issues mentioned in this chapter, include:

VI. Culminating Projects

Culminating projects ensure active student learning and greatly increase the likelihood of students gaining both in-depth and cohesive understanding of an issue. These activities give students opportunities to share the fruits of their labor; that is, to explain or share their understanding of and perspective on the central issue. They are not traditional pen and paper tests, though one format could be a well-crafted essay or position paper that is shared with others. Culminating projects often encourage group interaction and creativity and appeal to multiple learning styles. Examples include a speech, skit, or play; a radio broadcast; "live" or videotaped television newscast; a whole-class or small-group debate; poster display; newspaper publication; metaphorical representation of an idea, person, or event; or a small-group presentation. Regardless of format, culminating projects ask students to share their own perspectives on the unit's central question, not the teacher's or some other authority's perspective (though at some point the teacher may want to share his/her perspective). Units may contain more than one culminating activity. For example, a class might spend a day or two discussing or formally debating the proposition, "Hate speech should be regulated." A day or two later student small groups might present poster board representations of the kinds of hate speech and expression, if any, they believe should be regulated.

Culminating projects are motivating as students realize the end result is not just a written test privately graded and returned by the teacher, but rather an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding and intellectual prowess to peers. These activities are also motivating because students prefer working on collaborative projects with their peers (Goodlad, 1984). To capitalize on their motivating power, we recommend that students are introduced to project options and requirements at the beginning of a unit.

Culminating projects are a powerful means to develop students' thinking, and not only because the central unit issue must be addressed. Many students are very insecure about their ideas. Culminating projects, due to their public nature, provide students access to the ideas of others and serve to confirm the validity (or at least reasonableness) of their own thinking—both when working collaboratively in a team and when observing the presentations of other individuals and groups.

Three culminating activities can be found in the sample unit on cults in Appendix A (see Lessons 10-12). First, students address the central unit issue in a roundtable discussion. The discussion is scored by the teacher to encourage all students to participate and to enhance the quality of dialogue (see Chapter 31 by D. Harris for details on scored discussions). Second, students are to create a one-half hour videotaped or live, in-class "special report" that addresses the central issue. For instance, students might include in their presentation actual or mock interviews with current or former members of cults to discover how these cult and ex-cult members answer the central issue. Students might discuss with legal experts the ramifications of kidnapping and deprogramming or attempting to limit cult members' right to free speech. Third, students are to write a position paper articulating their position on the central issue. Outstanding papers will be read in class. All papers will be made available for peers to read.

VIl. Final Thoughts

To further increase curriculum integration, issue-based unit design can be applied at the course level. Course-level issues to consider throughout a year's study of U.S. history might include: Is the Historical Record of the U.S. One of Progress or Simply Change? Does Our History Justify the Claim that the U.S. Was and Still is a "Land of 0pportunity?"' or, Overall, Does the History of the U.S. Make You Proud to be an American? In a world cultures course, students might continually return to the question, Are the World's Cultures Essentially Similar or Different? In a Civics/Government class students might continually revisit the question, What Responsibilities, If Any, Do You Have as a Citizen in a Democracy? World history students might be asked to construct a year-end culminating project that addresses the following question: What Lessons from History Can Help Us Create a Better World Today?

We hope the above framework for designing issue-based social studies units contributes to your teaching success with students. Though the intellectual and time demands this framework places on teachers and students exceed those of traditional textbook-driven units of study, the rewards for everyone make it all worthwhile.


Bower, B., Lobdell, J. & Swenson, L. History Alive. San Francisco: Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Dweck, C. "Motivational processes affecting learning." American Psychologist 41, no. 10 (1986): 1040-1048.

Fitzgerald, F. America Revised. NY: Vintage Books, 1979.

Goodlad, J. A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Gross, R. "Reasons for the Limited Acceptance of the Problems Approach." The Social Studies (September/October, 1989):185-186.

Jung, C. Man and his Symbols. New York: Dell, 1964.

Kahane, H. Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1984.

Keating, D. "Critical Periods for Critical Thinking: The Adolescent in School." In Schooling & Society, edited by F. Miller. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994.

Loewen, J.W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: The New Press. 1995

Newmann F. "Can Depth Replace Coverage in the High School Curriculum?" Phi Delta Kappan 68, no. 5 (1988): 345-348.

Newmann, F. & Oliver, D. Clarifying Public Controversy. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1970.

Onosko, J. "Comparing Teachers' Thinking about Promoting Students' Thinking." Theory and Research in Social Education, 17 no. 3 (1989), 174-195.

Onosko, J. "Barriers to the Promotion of Higher-Order Thinking." Theory and Research in Social Education 19, no. 4 (1991): 341-366

Onosko, J. & Newmann, F. "Creating More Thoughtful Learning Environments in Secondary Classrooms and Schools." In Advanced Educational Psychology: Creating Effective Schools and Powerful Thinkers, edited by J. Mangieri & C. Collins Block. New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, 1994.

Shaver, J., Davis, O., & Helburn, S. "The Status of Social Studies Education: Impressions from Three NSF Studies." Social Education 43 (February, 1979): 150-153.

Tyson-Bernstein, H. A Conspiracy of Good Intentions: America's Textbook Fiasco. Washington, D.C.: Council for Basic Education, 1988.

Wiggins, G. (1989). "The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance." Educational Leadership, 47 (1989), 44-48.


Appendix A:3 week unit plan

Footnotes for NCSS Bulletin

Teaching Resources Index

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