Social Studies: Four Big Questions to Connect Then and Now

For many students, studying history can feel like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle has been dumped on their desk. How do they even begin to sort it out, much less make sense of a jumble of discreet events in the hopes of ever glimpsing the big picture?

Likewise, current events can seem like a carousel of unconnected facts, experiences, and impressions leaving them with a vague sense of déjà vu. This is particularly true as news cycles accelerate, volume goes up and it’s difficult to decipher what’s happening amidst the noise.

Faced with the challenge of wrapping their brains around what’s occurred in the past and connecting it to the history that’s being written right under their noses, can you blame kids if they’re tempted to throw up their hands and say, “Humans! Who knows what they’ll do next?”

So your challenge as you approach these subjects is to help your students create a template for thinking about Then and Now in a way that highlights the common threads in human behavior over time, so they can begin to identify the forces that hold society together or pull it apart, to see discernable patterns that connect the past with today’s headlines.

One way to approach this challenge is to invite your students to think like anthropologists, trying to figure out what drives human behavior by studying how humans continuously grapple with four big questions:

  • How do we survive?
  • How do we thrive? 
  • How do we evolve? 
  • What makes us devolve?

In every era of recorded history, humans keep revisiting this short list of challenges—sometimes getting better, sometimes losing ground. Current events are simply evidence of our latest efforts.

Let’s look at the issue of voting, which dominates the news in this year before the election, with stories about voting rights, voter suppression, eliminating polling places, purging voter rolls, voter turnout, and voter apathy. This critical topic reaches back to the ancient Greeks, with notable milestones along the way as we journey back to earlier times: the courage of the civil rights marchers, the hunger strikes of the suffragettes, universal suffrage for non-landowning males after the French revolution, and the Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy which promoted participatory democracy hundreds of years before our Declaration of Independence.

The Greeks were so convinced that citizen participation was paramount in a democracy that showing up was mandatory. Any eligible voters found lounging around the agora instead of attending debates on the topics of the day, were marked men. Slaves would smack the back of their white togas with a rope dipped in red chalk to advertise that they’d shirked their responsibilities. Now there’s a juicy prompt for a classroom conversation that’s stunningly relevant as we head into an election year.

Suppose you want to give this Big Question approach a try, using the four questions provided above or fine-tuning the list to your curricular focus. A simple way to road test the process is to dedicate a bulletin board to the effort. Post the big questions at the top and invite your students to bring in headlines from the newspaper or downloaded from the internet.

Now comes thinking and linking. Ask them to decide what is the most appropriate category for each headline. Are the events reported most concerned with surviving, thriving, evolution or devolution? This can lead to lively debates as some headlines may straddle two questions. The thinking is what’s important.

The headline, “Cars Banned from City Center to Curb Pollution,” is a case in point. Some students may immediately place it in the survival column because clean air is fundamental to human life, while others may opt for thrive because cleaner air promotes better health, productivity and longevity. But a third opinion may be that this headline actually belongs in the evolve category, for while it may look technologically regressive to ban cars, it could also indicate movement toward more sustainable energy sources, prioritizing the good of the whole community over personal convenience, and protecting the natural world.

After sorting and posting, you can begin to link the present to the past with a series of open-ended questions, such as: 

  • Can you think of similar events in the past?
  • What kind of solutions did people come up with then?
  • What difficulties did they encounter?
  • What might work now?

As your students become more familiar with the nuances of the big questions, they’ll get better at spotting trends in contemporary life and take pride in their ability to see the bigger picture.

You may be thinking “This will take a lot of time and I have so much material to cover. Can I really afford this kind of inquiry-based approach in a test-driven atmosphere?”

I know that pressure. I was in a classroom for nearly twenty-five years and as a principal, I had to be concerned with the performance of 750 students. But we must have the courage to ask this question: What kind of citizens do we want for our world?

I hope the answer is: People with a keen awareness of the main forces at play in the world who will ask “what is my role in that world?” and answer “vital participation.”


This post is adapted from a chapter in Laurel Schmidt’s book, Social Studies that Sticks: How to Bring Content and Concepts to Life


Laurel Schmidt is also the author of Classroom Confidential: The 12 Secrets of Great Teachers, Gardening in the Minefield: A Survival Guide for School Administrators, and Seven Times Smarter: How To Develop the Seven Intelligences in Your Child.

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