Back to Basics

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, August 23, 2006

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Design History

Subject Area

  • Language Arts
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

Two or three fifty-minute class periods


People's basic needs have changed little since the beginning of time. We need air, water, food, shelter, and clothing to survive. However, the objects people design to meet these basic needs have changed dramatically. In this activity, students will examine the unique and diverse historical artifacts that people have designed to fulfill their everyday needs in extraordinary ways.

National Standards

Historical Understanding. Standard 2. Level III. Understands the historical perspective 3. Understands that specific ideas had an impact on history
Language Arts
Standard 4. Level III. Gathers and uses information for research purposes 1. Gathers data for research topics from interviews (e.g., prepares and asks relevant questions, makes notes of responses, compiles responses) 3. Uses a variety of resource materials to gather information for research topics (e.g., magazines, newspapers, dictionaries, schedules, journals, phone directories, globes, atlases, almanacs, technological sources) 4. Determines the appropriateness of an information source for a research topic 5. Organizes information and ideas from multiple sources in systematic ways (e.g., time lines, outlines, notes, graphic representations) Standard 8. Level III. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes 2. Asks questions to seek elaboration and clarification of ideas 6. Makes oral presentations to the class (e.g., uses notes and outlines; uses organizational pattern that includes preview, introduction, body, transitions, conclusion; uses a clear point of view; uses evidence and arguments to support opinions; uses visual media) 7. Uses appropriate verbal and nonverbal techniques for oral presentations (e.g., inflection/modulation of voice, tempo, word choice, grammar, feeling, expression, tone, volume, enunciation, physical gestures, body movement, eye contact, posture)

Common Core State Standards

English Language Arts Standards Writing 

Grade 6-8

Production and Distribution of Writing:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.5 With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas clearly and efficiently.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Range of Writing:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

English Language Arts Standards: Speaking and Listening

Grade 6-8

Comprehension and Collaboration:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.1.A Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.2 Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.3 Delineate a speaker's argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and relevance and sufficiency of the evidence and identifying when irrelevant evidence is introduced.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.4 Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.5 Integrate multimedia and visual displays into presentations to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence, and add interest.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (See grade 8 Language standards 1 and 3 here for specific expectations.)

English Language Arts Standards: Reading Informational Text

Grade 6-8    

Key Ideas and Details:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.2 Determine two or more central ideas in a text and analyze their development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.3 Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events).

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.7 Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium's portrayal of the subject (e.g., how the delivery of a speech affects the impact of the words).

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

English Language Arts Standards: History/Social Studies

Grade 6-8

Key Ideas and Details:

  • CCSS.ELA-yt54LITERACY.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.3 Identify key steps in a text's description of a process related to history/social studies (e.g., how a bill becomes law, how interest rates are raised or lowered).

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.10 By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.


Students will do the following:
  • identify ways humans have used design throughout history to enhance the ways they meet their basic needs
  • analyze why people have a need to design new objects and new technologies to meet their basic needs


  • Internet websites


  • Internet access
  • magazines
  • newspapers
  • catalogs


Building Background Caves to Condos

The purpose of this activity is to provide an opportunity for students to examine the unique ways people throughout history have designed artifacts and technologies to meet their basic needs. 1. Involve students in a discussion about humans' basic needs. Ask students to list what people need to survive. (Air, water, food, shelter, and clothing.) 2. Shelter - Show students photographs of a cave dwelling and a renowned architectural building. Discuss how both structures provide the basic need for shelter. You may use the photographs on these sites for this activity. 3. Decorations - Take your students on a virtual tour of the Cave Lascaux Web site. As you view the artwork in the various rooms of the cave, discuss how the artwork might have changed the experience of living in a cave. 4. Clothing - Read to your class the following excerpt from the History For Kids Web site: Ancient Clothing Clothing was very expensive in the ancient and medieval world, because without engine-powered machines it was very hard to make. So most people had very few changes of clothing; many people probably owned only the clothes they were wearing. Many children had no clothes at all, and just went naked. In the Stone Age most clothing was made of leather or fur, or woven grasses. By the Bronze Age people had learned to spin yarn on a spindle and to weave cloth out of this yarn on looms. Although many clothes, especially coats, were still made out of leather or fur, most clothes were made out of wool (from sheep) or linen (from the flax plant) or cotton. Some rich people wore silk. In the Middle Ages (the medieval period), people invented the spinning wheel, which made spinning yarn go four times faster. Clothes were a little less expensive than they had been before, but still most people had only one or two outfits. Discuss how people need clothes to stay warm and to survive. Involve students in a discussion about how people created new technologies to create clothes to fill this basic need. 5. Food - Visit the Web site. Discuss how food has changed over time and how people have strived to find new ways to meet their basic need for nourishment. 6. Eating Utensils - Visit The Rietz Collection of Food Technology on the California Academy of Sciences Web site. Discuss how culinary objects and technologies have changed through time. Also visit the Cooper-Hewitt "Feeding Desire" website. Discuss the changes seen in tableware and eating utensils. Use the timeline to discuss the changes that took place over time. 7. Conclude this activity with a discussion about the reasons why people have the desire to design new artifacts and technologies to meet their basic needs.

Steps for Learning The Impulse to Design

In this activity, students will create a timeline that illustrates people's impulse to design since the beginning of time. 1. Review how people's basic needs have changed little through the centuries, but the objects that we use to meet these needs have. 2. Have students choose one of the following categories:
  • buildings
  • clothing
  • culinary objects and technologies
  • household implements/furnishings
3. Ask students to create a pictorial timeline for their chosen category. Tell students to find images of artifacts and place them in chronological order on the timeline. Students may use a variety of resources for this activity, including magazines, newspapers, catalogs and the Internet. The following Web sites may be useful for this activity: 4. Tell students to write a brief description of each object that they add to the timeline. Have students present their timelines to the class.


Answer the following:Give some examples of ways people design new objects and technologies to meet their basic needs.What do you think drives people to create these new objects and technologies?What new objects and technologies do you think might be created one hundred years from now?

Enrichment Extension Activities

Then and Now
1. Explore the Woodland Indian Village on the Exploring Maryland's Roots website. Ask students to compare how their basic needs are met in comparison to how the basic needs of the people who lived in the Woodland Indian Village were met.3. Have students create a map of the "village" where they live. The map should illustrate how the village meets its basic needs.

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