This is the "An Introduction to the Elements of Civilization" page of the "China: One of the World's Greatest Civilizations" guide.
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China: One of the World's Greatest Civilizations  

a curriculum unit created by Jessica Germain, Sandra Lovett, and Lara SanGiovanni. Silver Lake Regional Schools, Pembroke MA
Last Updated: Nov 16, 2010 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

An Introduction to the Elements of Civilization Print Page

Unit Goal

Activity: Students will learn about the elements of civilization and use American newspapers and magazines to make a "civilization collage".

Level: Grade 4

Suggested Length of Time: 45-50 minutes

Goal: Students will understand what defines civilization.


Key Questions

Early humans, like the Australopithecine Lucy, were not considered civilized. Later, humans in China and other parts of the world began to develop civilization.

  • How do we define civilization?
  • Are today's Americans civilized? What is your evidence?


  • Behavioral: Students will cooperate to create a collage about civilization.
  • Social Studies: Students will create an operational definition for "Civilization" through an analysis of their own civilization.
  • Social Studies: Students will develop a framework for understanding the world's great civilizations.
  • Social Studies: Students will create a visual display to serve as a medium for comparing and contrasting the United States with ancient China.
  • Language Arts: Students will make an oral presentation demonstrating their understanding of civilization.

Background Materials

1. "The Evolution of the State," "The Character of Civilization," and "The Civilization of Ancient China" from Feder, K. The Past in Perspective. (for teachers)

2. "Shang and Zhou" from Williams, S. Made in China. (for students & teachers) This book is available in the Primary Source library.

3. Clark, Kenneth. Civilisation. (for teachers)


Materials Needed

Primary Sources

Current newspapers and magazines depicting aspects from a wide range of American life and culture: The Boston Globe, U.S. News and World Report, Scholastic Weekly Reader, Good Housekeeping, etc.

Materials and Equipment

  • Sentence strips (strips of paper)
  • Markers
  • Student handouts outline for elements of civilization (see below)
  • Newspapers and magazines
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Construction paper-7 pieces 12x18, each labeled w/ an element of civilization
  • Bulletin Board

Learning Activities

  1. Pose the essential question: Early humans, like the Australopithecine Lucy, were not considered civilized. Later, humans in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and other parts of the world began to develop civilization. How do we define civilization? Are today's Americans civilized? What is your evidence?

  2. Brainstorm a list of examples of American (U.S.) civilization and record student ideas on sentence strips. Student ideas might include the use of money, electing a president, sending criminals to jail, having televisions, etc. If you use seven colors (paper or markers), you can color code their ideas into categories for the seven elements of civilization to simplify step 3 below.

  3. Present a list of the elements of civilization on chart paper. Distribute student outlines and discuss each element: Government, Religion, Economy, Arts, Technology, Settlement, and System of Writing. Assist students in organizing their examples by moving sentence strips into these categories. Encourage students to add examples to their brainstorming list for elements that have few or none.

  4. Divide the class into seven groups, one for each element of civilization. Assign the task: Using American (U.S.) magazines and newspapers, your group will find as many examples of your element of civilization as you can. Cut them out and make a collage on construction paper to show evidence of American civilization. You will present your collage to the class by explaining why you chose each picture.

  5. Distribute magazines, newspapers, scissors, glue, and construction paper to groups. If you have been color coding the seven elements, provide groups with construction paper that matches the established system.

  6. Invite groups to present their collages in front of the class.

  7. Display the collages on a bulletin board entitled "Civilization: Now and Then." Place student collages with "Now," leaving a large space for additions in "Then."

  8. Explain: Over the next few weeks, we will be studying ancient China. As we study Chinese civilization, we will be looking for the elements of civilization. Whenever you find an example from China that fits into one of these categories, we will add it to our bulletin board.



Oral presentation (see Learning Activity 6) to be evaluated using the following criteria:

Content (60%)

  • Provides many examples of the element of civilization                         /30
  • Explains relationship between element and example                           /30


Process (40%)

  • Participates actively in creating small group collage                            /15
  • Participates in presentation to whole group, including:                        /10
  • Loud, clear voice and eye contact                                                      /15


As students find examples of the elements in ancient China, they illustrate and write captions for each. You may also offer to photocopy pictures of the examples and have them add color and a caption. Subsequent lessons in this unit are organized around the elements of civilization, so students should find at least one example for each element in the lessons themselves. Many lessons provide evidence of more than one element. Having Chinese literature and non-fiction materials in your room will encourage students to find additional examples.


Annotated Bibliography

Clark, Kenneth. Civilisation. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.
359 pp., black & white, color art (adult). This classic philosophical tract explores the impulses, ideas, discoveries, and beliefs that have formed civilization since the fall of the Roman Empire. Ponders questions about the nature of civilization and its future with an emphasis on Western culture.

Feder, K. The Past in Perspective: An Introduction to Human Prehistory. Mayfield Publishing Co., 1996.
Adult reference. This book provides information on the early history of humans, from prehistoric times to the development of early civilizations. Useful in defining civilization in broad terms to serve as a framework for study.

Williams, Suzanne. Made in China: Ideas and Inventions from Ancient China. Berkley: Pacific View Press, 1996.
48 pp., color illustrations (intermediate. Includes background for students on a wide variety of technological advancements and scientific thought in general. In many cases information is more broad than specific, so this book serves as a good starting point for student research but may need to be supplemented with other books or web sites.


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