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A great way to develop higher-level thinking skills is through activities that analyze and interpret social studies phenomena from an ethical perspective. Through the high school lesson plan frameworks listed below, students can closely examine an issue, identify arguments and counter-arguments and then determine their morality based upon the evidence. 

Jump to: Group Work, Timeline, Critical Thinking, Ethics in Business, Ethics on Film


Teachers can choose an event/concept from history or today, the effects of which can be viewed from multiple perspectives. Examples include the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, or nuclear energy. The lesson procedure is as follows:

Background: The teacher will present students with information on the event/concept through either a mini-lecture or readings.

Group Work: For group work, students should be separated into tables of four. The teacher can then either assign each student a role or it can be completed as a team. The roles and questions are as follows:

  1. Background: What were the circumstances surrounding this event/concept? What caused it to emerge?
  2. Event/concept as ethical: Why do some argue that this event/concept was/is an ethical action/idea? What makes it morally right? Did/does it comply with any international laws or norms?
  3. Event/concept as unethical: Why do some argue that this event/concept was/is unethical? What makes it morally wrong? Did/does it violate any international laws or norms?
  4. Evaluation: As a group, do you think this event/concept was/is ethical or unethical? Why? What reasons are most compelling? (This section can be completed as a group. The student with this role can explain the group's reasoning during the share out).

Share out: A representative from each group (whoever had the evaluation role) can explain whether or not their group felt that the event/concept was ethical or unethical and why.

Closure (Class discussion): What should we do going forward? How should we remember the event (or how should we treat the concept)?

*This activity can be modified as a jigsaw, with students moving to different tables and sharing their responses. In this case, the role of the student in "evaluation" should be changed.


The teacher should choose a theme in which students can measure if humankind has become progressively more ethical over time. The students should ideally have a text so that they can research dates and events that they can plot on the timeline.

International Humanitarian Law Example:  A lesson can assess the progress and effectiveness of international humanitarian law (IHL) over time. Students can plot on a timeline major events in IHL during the 20th century and also mark major wars/mass violence that has happened during the same time period. Questions that could be asked include: What does the timeline show us about patterns concerning IHL and war? Was IHL effective during the 20th century? Did past violence teach us to become more ethical during war? Or will war be destructive and violent no matter what? What do you think the timeline will look like in the future? Does the timeline show that we are moving towards a more ethical and fair society?

Technology and War Example: As we create new weaponry for offense and defense, are we becoming more ethical? Students can create a timeline that plots different uses of force in war (potentially in the 20th century and 21st century) and assess whether or not, as we move forward with technology, we are also thinking progressively about how we treat others. Students can plot on the timeline things like mustard gas during WWI, the atomic bomb during WWII, nuclear weapons during the Cold War, Agent Orange during Vietnam, drones today, as well as record the destruction they caused. Based upon patterns, they can then ask: Are we moving towards a more ethical and fair society? Other questions can include: What do you see as marked successes of failures? What can we do to make changes in a positive direction?

Need timeline materials? Check out Council on Foreign Relation's Interactives


How do we remember controversial issues throughout history? This activity is inspired by Stanford History Education Group's (SHEG) activity on how we should remember the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the debates surrounding placing the Enola Gay (the aircraft that dropped the bomb) in the Smithsonian Museum.

Background: Students can listen to a lecture or read about a controversial event or character from history. They will learn about both the positive and negative effects of this event/person.

Activity: Students must think about how they would remember and commemorate this event/person. They can be as creative as they would like, either writing an essay and explaining what they would do, or making a drawing or mock-up of a statue/sculpture. Examples could be of wars where the one side was victorious, but at the cost of many lives, or of controversial leaders, such as Napoleon.

Share out: Students can explain to the class (or write an essay) about their choice to commemorate/remember an event or person. Is it ethical/moral to remember the event in this way? Is your choice based upon ethical and progressive changes that this event/person brought about? What did this event/person contribute to society to make it a better place? Or were they simply destructive?



Research Activity: Students can research the supply chain of specific multinational corporations, fair trade organizations, or government suppliers. Examples of questions that can be asked include: Where do the business's materials come from? Who makes up their labor force? How does the business contribute to the worker and their community? Are there any corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs in place? What is the business's target market?

Presentations:  Students can either do PowerPoint presentations on their findings or they could write information on chart paper/poster board and students can do a gallery walk.

Evaluation: Students can evaluate what they believe are the companies with the most ethical practices based upon a comparison of students' research and presentation. One way of doing this is by giving students a handout where they can rate businesses on a scale from 1-10 on different ethical practices. They then rank the companies for best practices based upon their total score. As a follow up, students can share out and debate how and why they gave certain business their respective rankings. 

Looking for a different ethics in business lesson? Try this list!


Teachers can use our guide to select movies that allow students to look at events and social studies phenomena from an ethical perspective. The guides include film synopses as well as discussion questions.