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Three Economics Essential Questions For Your Social Studies Class

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It’s a common complaint today that people don’t know how the government works and that they don’t learn anything about civics in schools. One reason for that is that we often misuse social studies courses – setting them up as history courses dominated by facts and chronology. Instead, we should organize these classes around a set of essential questions and pivotal themes.

By doing so, we can turn those otherwise pointless facts into tools by which we can understand the world around us. This is learning to read the word in order to read the world – instead of for its own sake.

This is one reason why I love the idea of a purely thematic curriculum for social studies. If it were up to me, we’d jettison chronology altogether. But we don’t all have the luxury of building an entire curriculum from scratch using a set of themes as a foundation. Instead, you can still use those themes to connect content across different time periods and encourage your students to think about the bigger picture.

Today, we’re going to take a look at one of those important themes: Economics. I’ll share a set of essential questions that I use with my own students to explore this theme as well as a powerpoint that you can use to facilitate a discussion with your own class. Keep reading through the end of the post, and I’ll also share some resources that will help you incorporate a few other themes into your course.

Three Social Studies Essential Questions Related to Economics

At the beginning of every year, I start out by discussing a set of essential questions. That includes three questions that relate to economics. By doing this, I can get a sense of what my students think as they are coming into my class and I can get my kids thinking about some big ideas that we’ll return to throughout the course.

Here’s a Slideshare presentation containing all of the questions, some follow ups, and a few images. Let’s take a look at each question – why it’s important and some of the responses that often arise.

Why Are Some People Rich and Some People Poor?

This is one of my favorite questions to discuss with my students. It reveals all kinds of misconceptions, and it helps me understand the ideological make-up of the group. It’s really interesting how – in a seemingly homogenous group – you get vastly different answers to this question.

Students will offer all kinds of answers. Some people work hard, while others are lazy. Some do well in school and pursue an education, while others drop out. Some are lucky enough to be born into wealth, while others are not. Some have a talent – like a musician, an actor, or an athlete – while some do not. Some are really smart, or they are great businessmen, or they come up with amazing ideas for inventions.

The list goes on and on, and you could quickly fill up a whiteboard with brainstormed ideas. But what you want to do is start digging into some of those responses to make students think about them more deeply.

LeBron James is rich because he’s good at basketball. But are all people who are good at basketball rich? For my students, sports and entertainment are often the big “dreams.” So I always push back on this response to think about why some athletes make it big and others don’t. Is it just athletic ability? Or does it matter who your parents are, where you live, how much money they have, the school you go to, and a host of other things? What about the month you were born? Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, has some interesting insights into this particular topic if you’re interested.

But aside from the question of advantages and privilege, there’s the undeniable question of probability. Think about how many high school quarterbacks there are in the country and then think about how many NFL quarterbacks there are in the country. Those are some slim odds, and chances are there are some pretty good football players out there who don’t make the cut at some point.

There are a lot of threads you can pull at. Pick the one that relates most to your students. Lawyers and doctors are great potential professions – but is it just brains and hard work that allows students to spend the better part of a decade in college? Investing is cool, but can you really make something out of nothing? Or do you need money to get started?

The goal here is to help your students understand that success and wealth aren’t just the product of hard work – they are also influenced by luck, privilege, and government policies.

What Do Americans Owe Each Other?

Again, this question will reveal some ideological divisions. Which of your students are more individualistic and which are more communitarian?

One response may be that we don’t owe each other anything. A purely individualistic student might say, “I succeeded on my own through my own hard work, so what do I owe other people?” This is another opportunity to probe a bit and think about other influences on success.

Others may say that they have a responsibility to do some community service and help out. Maybe they feel obligated to donate to a charity, volunteer their time to clean up, or become a mentor. I’m a big fan of hosting blood drives in schools. It might be worth asking if any of your students have parents who tithe – or if your student know what tithing is.

This also raises questions about how workers are treated and our role in that as consumers and or employers. Do we owe workers a living wage? Is it ok for me to get a product or service cheaply, knowing that it’s possible because a worker isn’t being paid fairly?

Is the American Economy Fair?

For this question, I like to return to the first question. If you have a good list of causes for why people end up being rich or poor, you can then interrogate them to think about whether or not its fair.

Does everyone have an equal opportunity to attend college and become a lawyer or a doctor? Or do some people enjoy certain advantages?

You can take this time to explore wealth and income inequality. Is there such a thing as too rich? Should we be trying to limit income and/or wealth accumulation at some point or let it grow unfettered? Alexis de Tocqueville had some interesting thoughts on the matter in Democracy in America. And in case de Tocqueville is not your speed, check out the YouTube video below.

It’s also worth talking about various types of discrimination here. Do women get paid the same as men? Do race and ethnicity have any impact on income and wealth? What about a criminal background?

In short, is the game fair? And if not, how can we use government policies to make it more fair?

How Do These Essential Questions About Economics Fit Into Your Class?

That’s up to you. But let me describe two ways that I use them with my students.

On the one hand, I use these as an introductory discussion in the beginning of the year. Over the course of the first two weeks – no matter what course I’m teaching – I always spend a few days discussing a variety of essential questions and themes. I use them to get to know my students and their prior knowledge, and I want them to start thinking about these questions early on.

Normally, I would use an entire class period to discuss these three questions. I’ll start with a Think-Pair-Share or a silent writing activity about the first question, and then have students share out their thoughts. After we’ve established a long list of reasons, we’ll think about the last question. Is this fair? Ultimately, the goal is to get them to realize that the economy is a set of rules, and those rules can be changed – through government. So the question of whether or not things are fair is very important because there is something you can do about it.

That lesson will wrap up with a short writing assignment for homework. I’ll ask them to two reasons that explain why some people are rich and some people are poor and then explain whether or not they think that is fair.

On the other hand, I also return to these questions throughout the year. As we learn about different time periods in history, I’ll ask them to answer the question again – using information they learned in that about that time period. By doing so, they re-engage with the question and re-evaluate their initial opinion. It also helps assimilate new content into their prior understanding of economics.

More About Essential Questions and Thematic Curricula

Economics is one of five themes that I focus on throughout my course. You should also take a look at these posts on essential questions related to Civics, Conflict, Equality, and the Movement of Peoples.

You ought to check out Dr. Beth Rubin’s book, Making Citizens: Transforming Civic Learning for Diverse Social Studies Classrooms. I learned a lot from it on how to integrate themes and essential questions into my course, and it’s an excellent read if you want to dig into this stuff more. This blog post also offers some ideas about the topic.

Have you used these questions with your students? How did the conversations go?

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