Iceberg Diagrams


Typically, there are numerous underlying causes that give rise to a specific event. Often these causes rest “beneath the surface” and can be difficult for students to “see.”  The Iceberg teaching strategy can be used to help students gain awareness of the multiple factors that give rise to particular events. The visual image of the iceberg helps students remember the importance of looking deeper than what is on the surface in order to better understand events in the past or present.  This strategy can be used as a way for students to organize their notes as they learn about a period in history, as a way to review material, or as an assessment tool.


Step One: Preparation

Select an event students are exploring in class. It can be an event from literature, history or current events.  Students should already be familiar with this event.

Step Two: Drawing the Iceberg
Ask students to list what they know about icebergs. Or, you can show them a picture of an iceberg. The main idea you want to come out is that what you see above the water is only the tip of the iceberg. The larger foundation rests below the surface. Then, ask students to draw an iceberg on a piece of paper or in their journals, making sure that there is a tip, a water line, and a larger area below the surface. Their drawing should be large enough so that students can take notes within the iceberg.  Alternatively, you can create your own iceberg template for students to use.

Step Three: The Tip of the Iceberg
Ask students to list everything they know about the facts of an event in the “tip” area of the iceberg.  Questions they should answer include: What happened? What choices were made in this situation? By whom? Who was affected? When did it happen? Where did it happen?

Step Four: Beneath the Surface
Ask students to think about what caused this event. Answers to the question, “What factors influenced the particular choices made by the individuals and groups involved in this event?” should be written in the bottom part of the iceberg (under the water). Factors might include events from the past (i.e. an election, an economic depression, a natural disaster, a war, an invention, etc.) or aspects of human behavior such as fear, obedience to authority, conformity, or opportunism. This step is often best done in groups so that students can brainstorm ideas together.

Step Five: Debrief
Prompts you might use to guide journal writing and/or class discussion include:

  • What did you learn from completing your iceberg?
  • Of the causes listed in the bottom part of the iceberg, which one or two do you think were most significant? Why?
  • What more would you need to know to better understand why this event took place?
  • What could have happened, if anything, to prevent this event from happening?
  • What have you learned about how to prevent similar events from happening in the future?
  • How does the information in this iceberg help you better understand the world we live in today?



-        An evaluation tool: As a final test for a unit, you could have students complete iceberg diagrams for a particular event you have studied. You might have students write a companion essay explaining the ideas they included in the bottom part of the iceberg.

-        Comparing events: Have students complete iceberg templates for events you study throughout the year. Periodically, ask students to compare these templates, recognizing similarities and differences among the factors that give rise to particular events. This exercise can help students notice historical patterns, while also appreciating the particular context that makes each event unique.

-        A note-taking template: Rather than have students complete their iceberg as one class lesson or homework assignment, you can have students complete their iceberg as you study a period in history. You can even post a class-version of the iceberg on the classroom wall. As students learn new information, they can add it to the iceberg.

-        Tree diagram: A similar strategy helps students analyze events by using a diagram of a tree instead of an iceberg. In this variation, students record basic facts about the event in the trunk of the tree (name of event, when it happened, where). The different people involved in the event (bystanders, perpetrators, victims and upstanders) are listed in the branches of the tree. Sometimes teachers have students draw a line connecting each person or group to a choice he/she/they made related to this event.  Finally, the causes of the event are listed in the “roots” section. For an example of this strategy, including a graphic organizer, see lesson 13, “Kristallnacht” in the unit Decision-making in Times of Injustice. 

-        Current events: Use the iceberg strategy as a way to help students explore current events. Have them bring in a story from the newspaper or found online. Working in small groups, students can complete an iceberg diagram for this event - recording details about what happened and then ideas about what they think caused the event.  Finally, students can present their iceberg diagram to the larger class. 


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