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Lesson Plans

Conspiracy theories, then and now

February 12, 2021

Full Lesson

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For a Google doc of this lesson, click here. (Note: You will need to make a copy of the Google doc to edit it.)

Overview

Conspiracy theories are as old as history itself. There has always been a tendency among members of society to believe that secret powers cause their troubles, or can heal them. One of the oldest of these, anti-Semitism, pins the Jews as the scapegoats. In colonial times, some of the founding fathers,  thought to be members of the “ Illuminati,” feared a return to religious-based Old World divine right monarchy, and even suspected that George Washington had been assassinated and was being impersonated by someone else.

There is always a reason for the popularity of conspiracy theories. In this lesson, students will examine four examples of conspiracy theories and learn about the people and the times that brought them forth. Finally, students will be directed to fact checking sites that will help them to detect conspiracy theories.

Subjects

U.S. History, World History, Language Arts

Estimated time

Up to one hour of homework study, classroom discussion time as desired

Grade level

9-12

Objectives:

  • Students will understand the role and spread of conspiracy theories in U.S. public life through comparison of four specific conspiracy theories.

Warm-up activity: As a class, discuss conspiracy theories that you might have heard recently, especially conspiracy theories about politics and schemes to upend American life. Where did you hear this theory?

Main activity:

This lesson can be used in either remote or traditional learning environments.

  • If participants want to explore these conspiracies together as a class, jigsaw groups of four participants will work best for this lesson. Each participant reads one conspiracy theory case study and shares what she learned with the other members of the group. Whole class debriefing follows.
  • If participants read these case studies for homework, the following day the whole class will review the answers that the students have recorded.
  1. Access the Conspiracy Theory Handout. (Note: You will need to make a copy of the Google doc to edit it or fill out the answers.)
  2. Participants (alone or in groups) answer the questions that follow each case study.
  3. Each participant should read the conspiracy-theory fact check articles linked at the end of the handout. Answer the question below the links: Do you think fact-checking has the power to weaken conspiracy theories? Why or why not? Aside from fact-checking, what is a good way to combat conspiracy theories?
  4. Participants should gather as a class and discuss answers from the handout. Then address the following question:
    • Based on the historical examples, what do you think the lifespan of new or contemporary conspiracy theories like Q Anon will look like?

Additional Resource: If you would like to learn more about contemporary conspiracy theories and the power of fact-checking or debunking, you can read this PBS NewsHour article.


Syd Golston is a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies. She has served as a history teacher, school administrator, and curriculum writer for many decades. She is the author of Changing Woman of the Apache, Death Penalty, Studies in Arizona History and other publications and articles.


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