History · The Unraveled Teacher

Introducing the Cold War in High School History Classes

The Cold War is a long, complex topic in US and World History classes. Here’s how I jump in and get my students to immediately understand the idea behind the Cold War before getting into any of the details.

On day 1 of my Cold War unit (for both my US History and AP® World History classes), I begin with a couple simple questions for my students. First, I ask “Who was the first man on the moon?” Without fail, my classes always immediately answer “Neil Armstrong!” Then I ask them, “Who was the first man in space?” This question most often stumps the majority of my students. It’s not because students haven’t ever heard of Yuri Gagarin, or that he’s been left out of history classes altogether, but (here in the US) we just don’t emphasize Yuri the way we do Neil.

So I follow up with my students about this. Why is it that we all immediately know Neil Armstrong but not Yuri Gagarin? This question always yields some commentary on the fact that Neil Armstrong was American and Yuri Gagarin was Russian and that we Americans associate space accomplishments in general with the US. When you prompt students to dig into the question of why that is, you get some really good thinking going in your classroom. During the Space Race, our media really highlighted US space exploration accomplishments but we definitely didn’t glorify Soviet accomplishments. This leads students into the territory of how our own thinking about the Cold War as American students is still shaped by the actual events of the Cold War. I always ask students to consider how this might shape our thinking about the Cold War, democracy, and communism. Then I flip that question around and ask them how Russian students of history might think of the Cold War, democracy, and communism. All of these questions bring students squarely into the heart of the ideological struggle of the Cold War which is central to the unit of study.

Asking students to stop for a moment and consider how and why they may perceive a certain historical event also gets into some important historical thinking skills that deserve a lot of attention in the history classroom. Studying history is not about simply compiling hard facts into chronological order, but rather using facts to analyze and interpret history to form sound arguments about why and how things happened. Why were the US and USSR locked in a Space Race? What were the effects of the Space Race? How do students in the US vs. students in Russia view and study the Space Race? These questions make students active participants in the historical process of analysis and interpretation. They help students understand that history is built upon argument that uses facts and not just simple facts themselves. These kinds of discussions can help prepare your students for historical research and forming or identifying arguments about topics in history. The ultimate goal of my history classes is not get students to memorize every fact, person, and date, but to get students to actively engage in questioning, identifying causes and effects, interpreting history, and analyzing arguments.

Get your Space Race discussion questions below!


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