A Timely New Problem-Based Learning Unit

Posted on: 01/30/2020 Back to all blog posts

Royal Fireworks Press is pleased to announce the publication of our latest Problem-Based Learning unit for middle schoolers, The Great Debates, which explores how the brand-new medium of television changed the political landscape of the 1960 presidential election.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) units are designed to immerse children in real-world problems by making them key stakeholders in the problem—and in its solution. The Great Debates opens on the heels of the first-ever televised presidential debate, during which then-Senator John F. Kennedy shone and then-Vice President Richard Nixon came across in an unflattering light. Suddenly Kennedy was surging in the polls, and Nixon was falling behind, and there was little doubt that the televised debate was a major factor in that turn of events.

The students’ stakeholder role is that of media consultants for Nixon, and their task is to learn as much as they can about what they need to advise Nixon to do to get back on track to win the election. Both political camps were putting out commercials, but Nixon needed to up his game to compete with Kennedy’s media messaging. The students study the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses and what the public thinks of them, as well as the role of television and how they can use it to their advantage. They craft a plan to help Nixon revise his image, thereby winning over voters. The unit ends with the students presenting their plan and then learning what actually happened to Nixon and Kennedy. They take that information and connect it with the role of the media today, which is considerably broader now and multi-platformed. What did Kennedy know and Nixon discover that can be applied to today’s political landscape, in which the effective use of media (including social media) is imperative for success?

PBL helps children to develop several skills that are important for them to learn—most notably those of collaboration and the ability to problem-solve in a setting in which there is no one right answer, and compromise may be necessary. The Great Debates offers students a chance to practice those skills while learning about a significant event in American history. In the process, they will discover just how true it is that democracy depends on informed participation. After all, we want our children to be educated and able to participate in the greatest of all social experiments.

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