5th Grade New York

Complex Societies

This inquiry provides students with an opportunity to evaluate a series of innovations by three complex civilizations— Maya, Aztec, and Inca. In examining the compelling question “What makes a complex society complex?” students explore how complex societies and civilizations adapt to and modify their environment to meet the needs of their people. Students use the social studies practices of Comparison and Contextualization as they work with sources related to the ancient writing developed by the Maya, specialized agricultural methods developed by the Aztecs, and transportation/communication networks developed by the Inca. The goal of this inquiry is to provide enough background about these innovations and technological advancements to support students as they develop arguments about what makes societies complex.


Compelling Question:

What Makes a Complex Society Complex?

Staging the Question:

Discuss examples of complexity in our society today, noting things that have changed recently in society and how those things are connected, for example, cell phones and the Internet.

Supporting Question How did the Maya use writing to represent activities in their culture?

Formative Task Write a paragraph describing how the Maya used writing and how others have worked to understand it.

Sources Source A: Excerpt from Writing in Maya Glyphs
Source B: “Maya symbols and Glyphs” chart
Source C: 19th-century reproduction of the Dresden Codex


Supporting Question What did the Aztecs do to master their watery environment?

Formative Task Make a chart of the benefits of swamp agriculture and the use of chinampas.

Sources Source A: Description of the chinampa system
Source B: Illustration of a chinampa
Source C: Photograph of a modern chinampa


Supporting Question Why were roads important to the Inca Empire?

Formative Task Make a diagram illustrating how the Inca road system functioned and how Inca runners used that system.

Sources Source A: “Inca Roads and Chasquis”
Source B: Image bank: Inca roadways
Source C: An Inca Chasqui runner

Summative Performance Task

Argument: What makes a complex society complex? Construct an argument (e.g., detailed outline, poster, or essay) that explains what makes societies complex using specific claims and relevant evidence from historical sources.
Extension: Prepare a diagram or a chart that illustrates the complexity of one or more of the societies featured in this inquiry.

Taking Informed Action

Understand: Find examples of new technologies available or under development that are affecting complex societies today (e.g., smartphones or self-driving cars).
Assess: Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of these new technologies.
Act: Write a letter to an entrepreneur about the benefits of the new technologies and related challenges.