Pih curriculum matrix

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Note: This curriculum matrix is an evolving document intended to stimulate dialogue among members of the PIH community as we attempt to conceptualize the organization of the social studies curriculum around fundamental, persistent issues. Ultimately, we hope to have a completed matrix for both U.S. and World History with links to model curriculum units for each topic-specific question. Many of these questions apply to other social studies subjects as well. We welcome and encourage discussion, suggestions, and contributions as we build this conceptual model together.

Persistent Issues in History: Major Question Areas with Examples of Topic Specific-Questions for Selected History Topics Persistent Issue

Potential Topic Area
Topic-Specific Question

I. What actions are justified in the interest of the welfare or security of the community?

  1. This issue could explored in a U.S. history course, or a world history course with a few adaptations, anytime that the nation considered the use of military force to resolve a dispute.

When is a nation/the United States justified in going to war?
Was the U.S. justified in using military force in_______?

(When this question is posed to students depends upon the time period and the dispute. The dispute might result in the limited use of military force such as with Barbary Pirates or full scale use such as with World War II. The question could be reworded so as to address situations, such as the undeclared war with France during John Adams’ presidency or the dispute with England over the Oregon territory, where military force was considered, but not used.)

PIH Planning Log: Conceptualizing Instruction- Framing the Unit Name ____________________

My Content Topic

The Persistent Issue

The Topic-Specific

Central Question

The Culminating Activity

What is a topic that is rich and significant enough to deserve in-depth treatment?

What is the broad, recurring issue that might serve as a focus for organizing content related to my topic?

What is a more specific question that requires students to make a specific, evaluative judgment for which they will have to use knowledge gained from activities in this unit?

What will my students do at the end of the unit to answer the unit central question?


Any war or situation where the U.S. considered the use of military force.

What actions are justified in the interest of the welfare or security of the community?

  • When is one nation justified in going to war against another nation?

If you were the United States president, what decision would you make?

Students revisit and revise the guidelines that they had established for what justifies war after applying them to…. Students can reapply their thinking as they learn about future wars in U.S. history.

Video Case Sample
Title: Just War

Topic: Military Action
Persistent Issue:

What actions are justified in the interest of the welfare or security of the community?

Unit-specific Central Question:

When would the U.S. be justified in taking military action?

Unit Overview:

This is a concept lesson which is being used at the beginning of a course to define criteria for “just war”. These criteria will be used in each military action taken in subsequent units. The students will decide of those actions were justified and revisit their “list” making adjustments as they wish. By the end of the year, the class should have developed a final list of criteria which they would use to advise the President.

Lesson 2: Role Play: The President Decides What Justifies War


  1. Recognize and discuss the reasons that nations use to justify war

  2. Encourage perspective-taking and consideration of opposing viewpoints

  3. Make decisions about what justifies war within the context of a government official

  4. Begin to develop well reasoned thinking on what justifies war as a prelude to applying this thinking to military events in United States history.


Students engage in a role play activity in order to understand the reasons why nations go to war as a prelude to applying their thinking about each of the wars and/or situations that might have resulted in a war to be explored in a U.S. history course. Working first in role-specific groups and then in combined decision-making groups as representative of the President and members of the cabinet, students respond to a series of questions as they prepare a list of guidelines to use when deciding whether the U.S. should go to war. At the conclusion of the role play, student groups present their guidelines and the reasoning behind each one to the class. Upon entering class the next day students compare the list generated by each group and respond in writing to several thought questions. Students then engage in a two-tiered debriefing discussion, led by the teacher, where they first discuss the process of generating the guidelines and then what was alike and different about the sets of guidelines and the reasoning behind them. Finally, they are informed that they will need to apply this thinking to several situations encountered by U.S. presidents throughout U.S. history.


Introductory Grabber: Teacher engages students in a discussion about contemporary news stories that specifically address military conflicts around the world, in this instance the discussion was about military action taking place in the Middle East. The purpose of this discussion is not to gather student opinions on the justness of this action, but rather to point out that these events are in the news every day and that there are very real, human consequences to such military conflicts. This step is critical since the students are going to participate in a role play activity in which they are asked to act as though they were the President and his/her advisors. This discussion introduces students to, and prepares them for, the role of the U.S. president as a commander-in-chief and to one of the most critical decisions that a president or other national leader confronts - whether to go to war, a decision the could result in the loss of civilian and military life. Students are advised that while working within groups they will need to draft a set of guidelines that future presidents will use when deciding whether going to war is justified.
Role-specific Groups: After receiving an overview of what is expected during the role-play, students are assigned a role from the “Justifying Military Action” activity, such as Secretary of State, which contains a brief description of that character’s thinking about what justifies war. Students meet as a homogenous group with other students assigned the same role and discuss how their particular character might answer questions such as: is it okay for the U.S. to go to war if attacked; is it okay to go to war for economic reasons; and, is it okay to go to war if another nation is killing a lot of its citizens. It is important that the students understand that they are to take on the perspective of the assigned role. The teacher advises the students in the presidents’ group how to conduct the role play in the decision-making group.
The students are given about 10 minutes to come up with a list of 5 reasons that would justify military action from the perspective of the role they are representing. If the students need help getting their list started, they can refer to the Student Guide. As the groups are compiling their lists, the teacher should walk among them in order to help guide their progress and challenge their thinking. It is important for the students to understand that they will be taking this list of 5 reasons to a meeting that includes the President and his/her other advisors. Now is there chance to find 5 reasons that are in the best interest of their given perspective. Their list should be as specific as possible. The teacher advises the students in the presidents’ group how to conduct the role play in the decision-making group.

Decision-making Groups – The President and her Advisors: Students move into new, heterogeneous groups made up of a member from each of the role-specific groups, which are the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In these heterogeneous groups the students are to reach consensus on 5 reasons that justify military action. Since each student will have a different viewpoint, reaching agreement is harder than in the homogeneous, role-specific groups. It is important that the students playing the President understand that meeting is her/his to run and that s/he is responsible for making the final decision about which 5 reasons are acceptable.
The president begins the role play by asking the cabinet members to introduce themselves. After the introductions, each character in the role play explains his or her thinking about what justifies war. After the last character has presented her or his thinking, the group addresses the larger question of what justifies war by answering the sub-questions first addressed in the role-specific groups. The student playing the role of the president reminds the group that they need to draft a set of guidelines or statements when the U.S. would be justified in going to war. Once the group reaches consensus that a nation is justified going to war when attacked, for example, they need to write this as a statement. The group moves on to the next possible reason that might justify war, seeks to reach a consensus and to capture this thinking in a single statement. As the group puts its’ thinking on paper, the teacher moves among the groups and poses “what if” questions to challenge the group’s thinking on one or more of its statements. With a statement that a nation is justified to go to war when attacked, the teacher might ask the group if war is justified: if no U.S. citizens died; if the attack occurred on a U.S. embassy in another nation; or, if U.S. citizens traveling on a non-U.S. airline were killed. By the end of the role play students are to have completed that list of guidelines in sentence form that they are able to reasonably defend. The lists are posted on the classroom walls.
Closure/Transition: Upon finalizing the 5 reasons, each group post its list on the classroom walls. The Role Play ends with a writing prompt that asks the students the following questions:

  1. How difficult was it for you to stay within your role during these discussions?

  2. Was it easier to come to group consensus in the first group where everybody had the same role or the second group where everybody had a different viewpoint? Why?

  3. How might these decisions be different if they were being made in real life?

Debriefing Discussion: After receiving time to read and think about each group’s list, during the second period students engage in a two-tiered debriefing activity. The first purpose of the activity is to try and develop a classroom set of reasons that justify war. The second purpose is discuss what it was like for students to play their respective role and what they learned about making decisions related to war.
As the students look over the lists during the beginning of class, the teacher asks them if they can spot any similarities between the lists and poses a starter question such as: “Are there reasons that are consistently noted across all the groups?” This question begins the discussion and debate over which reasons should be included on the class list. As reasons are proposed, the teacher writes them on the board and challenges the students to clarify the reasons as well as possible. Consider the following example of a possible proposed reason:

  • Military action is justified when one of our allies is being attacked.

The teacher in this case would want to ask probing questions that get the students to qualify or clarify the reason until it is one that can be applied to specific situations. For example, the teacher might ask questions such as:

  • “If any ally is attacked?”

  • “What if one of our allies is attacking another?”

  • “What if our ally did something to deserve the attack?”

  • “How do we decide if our ally needs assistance?”

These questions are designed to illustrate to the students that the reasons we choose for just military action are not always cut and dry. Sometimes there will be a significant grey area that will leave us in doubt.

As students begin to “finalize their reasons in clear, fairly definite statements, the teacher makes three points. First, students are reminded of the message delivered on the first day that there are life and death consequences to whatever reasons they choose. Second, the each statement of a reason will become a hypothesis that they will “test” as they encounter relevant events in U.S. history. As a result, they likely will change the wording of one or more of these statements throughout the course of the year. Third, as they learn about events in U.S. history where questions about war and/or the use of military force were raised, they will discover how the people and leaders of that time struggled with deciding what justified war.
Once the students as a class generates 5 reasons, the teacher addresses the second purpose of the debriefing activity by reminding them of how some or all groups struggled with producing a group list. The teacher then poses the following questions for each student to answer in writing:

  1. Which role was the most difficult to play in this simulation? Make a case for why you think it was the most difficult.

  2. What has this role play activity taught you about the decision to go to war?

If time permits, students discuss their response as a class.

Conclusion: Students learn how the role play is an introduction to a U.S. history course and how they will need to apply their thinking about what justifies war in a historical context. They are going to learn about how a president faced a decision about whether to use military force, and possibly even ask Congress to declare war, to resolve a dispute with another nation and how they will compare their thinking with that of people from that time period. Since their lists are a work in progress, they will remain posted on the wall and they will revise them as the need arises.

Justifying Military Action
The U.S. President and her advisors are preparing for an international meeting on the use of military force. The meeting's purpose is to decide what types of military actions are justifiable. Before considering the actions themselves, the President and her advisors first need to consider how to tell the difference between a justifiable and an unjustifiable war.
As a group draft several guidelines to help you to decide when it is and is not justifiable to go to war and what types of military actions are and are not justifiable. In going to war, for example, are there some purely economic reasons that justify a war? When considering military action, for example, is the killing of people who are unable to defend themselves justifiable? If not, then apply this guideline to several situations to determine how well it works. As a general rule, is killing prisoners justifiable? What about civilians from the nation you are fighting? After coming up with several guidelines, which seem to work, consider the military actions on the attached sheet. As you review each action, apply your guidelines. After reviewing all the actions, revise your guidelines as needed. The revision might not simply mean rewriting the guidelines, but adding and eliminating them as well.
Once you complete the guidelines, prepare to present them to the international meeting.
President/Commander-in-Chief: While you are surrounded by advisors who are expert in different parts of the military, you are the only one required to keep the whole picture in mind. You need to make the final decision on the wording of each guideline.
Secretary of State: As the nation's chief diplomat, you are most concerned about how the decisions might affect relations with other nations. Obviously you desire a strong stance, but also are conscious of other items such as human rights.
Secretary of Defense: As the top civilian representing the military, you want what is in the best interest of the military. You also are aware of the political side of your job and how what is decided needs to play well with the American people.
Vice President: As a student of military history, you know that while seemingly chaotic, war is governed by rules. While many military people argue that "might makes right," you realize that today's mighty are often tomorrow's fallen. You want to plan for today and for tomorrow.
Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: As a war veteran, you realize that rules of war often only are paper laws. On several occasions you broke such rules so as to save the lives of your soldiers and civilians. While recognizing such rules are important, you are skeptical of how much weight to give them.
Chairperson, Senate Foreign Relations Committee: As the child of a Japanese-American interned during World War II, you believe very strongly in clear cut guidelines which limit a nation's military action. At the same time, you are a big supporter of a strong military.
National Security Advisor: As a former Central Intelligence Agency director, you recognize that a nation often operates on the edge of the law. You do not doubt the importance of limits on war, for example, but realize that international law only is as good as a nation's ability to enforce it. It is your job to ensure that the U.S. is best able to protect its interests.

Student Guide
The Big Question to Answer: When do you think it is OK or Not OK to go to war?
Directions: The follow questions are to help you as you make the guidelines. You need not answer all of them.

  • Is it OK to go to war if your nation is attacked?

  • Is it OK to go to war for economic reasons?

  • For example, what if a nation was seizing your nation’s cargo ships?

  • What if a nation was keeping you from a vital natural resource?

  • Is it OK to go to war with a nation that is killing large numbers of its citizens?

  • Is it OK to go to war with a nation that is inhumanely treating its citizens?

  • Is it OK to go to war to fight terrorism?

  • Is it OK to go to war with a nation that militarily threatens you, but has not actually attached your nation?

  • Is it OK to go to war to protect an ally?

  • Is it OK to go to war on the side of an ally, even if you do not agree with why your ally went to war?


In deciding when a nation like the U.S. is to go to war, you are dealing with the lives of soldiers and citizens.

During the role play you are to represent the character’s thinking, not your own.

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