No one ever said that it would be easy to help produce the next generation of civic-minded citizens especially considering, as educators, our job is also to help morally shape and ethically balance their young minds. I think that most of us never anticipated the complexities surrounding the true tests associated with being a twenty-first century educator or just how much they would challenge our own world views.

As we continue to grapple with both the increased rigor of our classroom instruction and producing the best new version of life learner, we also need to remember that it is essential we integrate into best practice helping students critically and analytically question: “how the individual pieces (of learning and life) fit together? ”

One very effective way to get kids to appreciate how the individual pieces of history fit together is by having them deliberate using a series of open-ended compelling aims and hypothetical claims. Although each is a content specific topic, they are also designed to be important life lessons.

During our study of Reconstruction, students began by deliberating: “ Should American morality be determined by majority vote?” and wound up by the end of the unit collectively deciding what the “Greatest American Issue” or barrier was to our country’s reunification in the aftermath of the Civil War. See PDF handouts here.


Students are given a Compelling Aim and asked to make a Hypothetical Claim in order to establish their particular viewpoint. What makes their primary case analysis hypothetical is it is what they believe to be true, but have no evidence as of yet to back it up. Their hypothesis is followed up by a series of task-based analysis activities. This strategy combines the guidelines established by the C3 Framework, with the rigor of the Inquiry Design Model through helping students to first hypothesize, then analyze, deliberate and finally reach an evidence-based conclusion regarding given historical themes in context.

With the Reconstruction unit, students were also asked to decide if proposed critical aspects of the compelling aim question were more moral and/or ethical in nature. A class conversation resulted, establishing the boundaries for the difference between morals and ethics.

Students were then broken up into cooperative groups and assigned individual research tasks with the goal of collecting information attempting to prove the group’s hypothetical claim. Students were allowed to choose from an array of pre-selected multi-media or primary literary sources.

Varying in research style, materials and allowing for student choice is a great approach, especially for empowering ESL and special need learners. Through providing subtle differentiation of instruction and structured task-based activities, students of all ability levels acquire much needed confidence working with more complex historical resources. These experiences increase student engagement and success producing the highest quality learning environment for all students.

After the individual research has been completed, students are given time to analyze, deconstruct and discuss their individual research ‘pieces’ with one another and reflect on their original compelling aim analysis. They quickly discover whether or not they have enough evidence to prove their group’s hypothetical aim or if their evidence has taken them in a different direction. Students are further encouraged to explore the possibilities of the alternate point of view and further encouraged to “go where the evidence takes you.” Students then proceed to write their evidence-based analysis in the space provided followed by their collectively decided upon “strongest pieces of evidence.”

Finally, using their Social Studies Reference Table, which was discussed in a previous post, students draw their own compelling conclusions on what they feel was the main issue related to our topic that was impacting the country and whether the bias associated with the issue was more of a moral or ethical barrier for America.

History is a puzzle, as is life. Aligning content topics with relevant historical thinking skills allows students to critically and analytically deconstruct a myriad of sources. This process allows them to not just acquire knowledge, but to take responsibility for it. As they engage in the process, they practice making moral and/or ethical judgments, promoting civic mindedness and subsequent student success in social studies.

According to Humanities teacher Anne Brown, “ Teachers can make social studies more relevant and engaging to students by incorporating inquiry-based projects into history lessons and helping student develop their historical thinking skills.” 1 There were 11 compelling aims and claims designed and developed to help students crack the bigger complex moral and/or ethical code(s) associated with American Reconstruction. However, students being allowed to deconstruct history’s individual pieces and embrace the responsibly associated with reconfiguring how those pieces subsequently fit back together helps them to visualize “the bigger picture” of not just the lesson, but of life, … their best version of the truth. Our chosen approach to instructional best practice should not just give our students a history lesson, but an education in life. How the individual pieces ‘fit together’ for each of us will be unique. Why not let them decide.

1 Brown, Anne. How To Boost Student Engagement In Social Studies. Education Week, NCSS Smartbrief. 22 July, 2019.