Generative Topics in Social Studies



Our examination of differentiating understanding from knowledge in the previous unit has introduced us to the concept of generative topics in instruction. As educators, one component of the classroom environment that can greatly hinder instruction is the lack of student engagement in the material. Adolescent students, especially in social studies, need to find the material interesting or they will shut down seemingly faster than a blink of the eye. This is where generative topics come into play. For this unit, our main focus will be on taking a closer look into the role that generative topics play in fostering the development of understanding within our students. Generative topics are those that can be applied in multiple domains, hold a certain interest to the students AND teacher, possess accessibility to multiple instructional resources, and connect with the students' previous experiences.


  • identify the role of "generative topics" in fostering understanding
  • extract examples of generative topics from within the NYS Social Studies Core Curriculum


Like the previous unit, you will again be required to read and analyze different pieces of writing on the subject at hand, which in this unit is generative topics. Your first reading is a website constructed by Harvard University's Active Learning Practice for Schools titled "Generative Topics." Here you will find a complete introduction to generative topics, including an explanation the process of how to determine what generative topic is most appropriate for your overall purpose. The second reading is a chapter from the book titled "Teaching for Understanding With Technology." In this chapter, the authors provide another detailed explanation and analysis of the role of generative topics and how they can be utilized to foster understanding. This chapter uses a case study of generative topics used in a mathematics classroom to reinforce their role. I acknowledge that our content area is not mathematics, but it does provide a well organized example of how generative topics can be utilized in the classroom. So as you read this second piece, keep an open mind as to how you can relate the material to social studies instruction. Once you have completed both readings, compose an analysis of the materials to demonstrate your own understanding of the content.

After you have completed your analysis of the role of generative topics in developing understanding, the next step is to begin extracting examples of generative topics from materials that we will be more accustomed to using in the social studies classroom. With your understanding of generative topics you will be required to examine the New York State Social Studies Core Curriculum for grades 7 - 12 and extract generative topics from the content established here. You are required to establish at least one generative topic for each of the core social studies courses in New York State for grades 7 - 12, which are: United States and New York State History (7/8), Global History and Geography (9/10), United States History and Government (11), Economics, the Enterprise System, and Finance (12), & Participation in Government (12).

  • Once you have completed these tasks, visit our discussion page to participate in a collaborative analysis of the materials. Feel free to visit the discussion page at any time throughout this unit to see what your peers have highlighted.


1) Generative Topics

2) Chapter 3: Generative Topics and New Technologies

3) NYS Social Studies Core Curriculum Part 1 - Social Studies 7-8 (The Social Studies 7-8 Core Curriculum starts on page 19)

4) NYS Social Studies Core Curriculum Part 2 - World History, and United States History & Government

5) NYS Social Studies Core Curriculum: Economics, the Enterprise System, and Finance

6) NYS Social Studies Core Curriculum: Participation in Government


Blythe, T., et. al. (1998). Generative topics. Retrieved from Harvard University, Active Learning Practice for Schools Web site:

Wiske, M.S., et. al. (2004). Generative topics and new technologies. In Teaching for understanding with technology (pp. 25-40). San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.


Advance to Unit Three: How to Teach for Understanding

Return to Unit One: Defining Understanding

Go to Teaching Socials Studies for Understanding Discussion Space

Return to Teaching Socials Studies for Understanding