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National Debt

National Debt

Unit Summary

After defining national debt and exploring the magnitude of a billion and trillion in multiple contexts and visual representations, students work in teams to answer the questions, How big is a seven trillion U.S. dollar debt? and What are the implications for us as teenagers? Student teams research the problem and also answer the question, What are the consequences of a seven trillion U.S. dollar debt and what should be done about it? Students use the Showing Evidence Tool to make an informed claim about the problem and provide evidence to back up their claim. They synthesize what they learn into an argument that persuades their local congressional representatives to consider their opinion.

Curriculum-Framing Questions

  • Essential Question
    Should we spend more than we have?
  • Unit Questions
    How big is a seven trillion U.S. dollar debt?
    Who should be responsible for the debt?
    Why should we worry about a seven trillion U.S. dollar debt?
  • Content Questions
    What is debt?
    What is a national deficit?
    How much is a billion?
    How much is a trillion?

Assessment Processes

View how a variety of student-centered assessments are used in the National Debt Unit Plan. These assessments help students and teachers set goals; monitor student progress; provide feedback; assess thinking, processes, performances, and products; and reflect on learning throughout the learning cycle.

Instructional Procedures

Prior to Instruction

This unit of study makes use of the Showing Evidence Tool. Examine the Showing Evidence Tool as you plan instruction to learn about the tool and how to use it with your students.

Setting the Stage
Pose the Essential Question, Should we spend more than we have? Organize students into small groups and have them discuss the Essential Question and record their initial responses. Encourage them to talk about why they think we should or should not spend more than we have as well as the consequences for spending more than we have.

Ask several students to share their responses to the Essential Question, and then tell the class that they will complete a unit that examines the questions, What is so big about a seven trillion U.S. dollar debt? and Why should we worry about a seven trillion U.S. dollar debt?

Understanding Large Numbers
Tell students that they will examine the Unit Question, How big is a seven trillion U.S. dollar debt? as well as the specific Content Questions, How much is a billion? and How much is a trillion? The following exercises help students understand the magnitude of the numbers they will be dealing with in examining the national debt.

Day 1

Pose the following question to your students: If I gave you $1,000 a day, seven days a week, how long would it take you to collect one billion U.S. dollars? Have students assume no money is being spent and no interest is earned. (Answer: 2,737 years, 10 months, 7 days) Allow students to explain how they arrived at their answers. Hold a discussion around problem solving strategies and call attention to the various strategies students used to find a solution to the problem.

Encourage students to use strategies from the discussion to answer the following questions:

  • How long would it take to accumulate one million dollars? (Answer: 2 years, 8 months, 26 days)
  • How long would it take to accumulate one trillion dollars? (Answer: 2,737,850 years, 9 months, 13 days)

After students complete the problems, ask a few students to use the board to explain their solutions to the class. Lead a whole-class discussion around the question, What is the difference between one million, one billion, and one trillion? Have students first record their thoughts in a journal before they share with the class. Take anecdotal notes as students work and share their strategies.

Review student journals and anecdotal notes, and provide additional instruction as necessary.

Day 2

Have students go to the U.S. National Debt Clock Web site* and record the exact amount of the debt and the exact time. They should then wait one minute, press the Refresh or Reload button on their browser, and then write down the new amount and time. Repeat this three or four times, keeping track of the amount and time in a chart. Next, tell students to calculate the average amount the national debt increased in one minute.

Have students create spreadsheets showing what could have been purchased with the amount the national debt increased in one minute. Circulate through the room as students work, asking questions and providing help as necessary. Tell students they can use estimates and catalogs, newspapers, and so forth. On the spreadsheets, have students use the sum function to automatically total the amounts.

Understanding Debt
The following U.S.-specific activities can be adapted to fit any country’s data.

National Debt

Working in teams, have students research the following questions:

  • What is national debt?
  • What is national deficit?
  • What is the difference between the national debt and national deficit?

Next, have teams research and come to a conclusion on the questions, Is having more than seven trillion U.S. dollars in national debt a problem? Why or why not? Require students to use quotations, facts, numbers, and examples from their research to make a sound argument.

Balancing the Budget

Give students the budget experiment handout and the balancing budget handout to use while completing the activity. Have student teams visit the Budget Explorer Web site* and estimate the percentage of the federal budget spent on each item. Ask each team to look through the departments and programs that receive funding from the federal government, and discuss with their group members how they think the U.S. government should divide the budget. (Hint: Students may want to look for huge expenditures and trim them, or find smaller programs to get rid of entirely.) Students decide as a group which expenditures they would reduce and which should receive more funding. Have students analyze what happens to the budget when they start to increase and decrease areas based on what their group considers important. Each team should continue until either the team has reached a balanced budget, reduced the deficit, or increased funding to areas they think will increase the country’s wealth.

As teams work on their research and budget, circulate through the room asking probing questions, offering feedback, and taking anecdotal notes on individual students and group processes.

Using Showing Evidence
Before proceeding with the next activity, click here to set up the National Debt project in your workspace. Introduce the Showing Evidence Tool by using the demonstration space at Try the Tool. Show students how to make claims, evaluate claims, and create evidence. If students have limited experience in making claims and providing evidence, demonstrate the process with the whole class. A step-by-step demonstration can help students access and use the Showing Evidence Tool effectively. For example, show students how to make a claim and then have them make one on their own, show them how to create and link evidence, and then have them practice on their own.

Have a class discussion about what qualifiers should be used for rating evidence. Come to a class agreement about the qualifiers, and post them on a chart so that students can refer to the list when they rate their evidence. Also, call attention to the Comment section of the tool, and have students use the space to write their conclusions.

Have students log in to their Showing Evidence team space. Point out the prompt that guides their work: Is a seven trillion U.S. dollar debt a problem? Have each student group use their research from the previous activities to make claims and back them up with evidence, making sure to rate their evidence. Students should continue their research and find more evidence to either support or refute their claims. Provide students with the tool rubric to help guide them in the process.

As students work, use the observation sheet to record how students interact in small groups.

After students finish the exercise, have students peer review each other’s claims, evidence, and rationale. Direct students to discuss each other’s comments about the relative merit of each claim and each piece of evidence. Encourage groups to revise their thinking based on what they learn from the peer review.

Examining the Showing Evidence Activity
The Showing Evidence Tool space below represents one team's investigation in this project. The case you see is functional. You can double-click on the evidence to read the team's descriptions.

  Project Name:   National Debt (Click here to set up this project in your workspce)
  Prompt:  Is a seven trillion dollar debt a problem?

Explore an interactive demo.

National Debt


Presenting the Findings
Provide students with the following guidelines for their presentation of findings:

Using your balancing budget work and your Showing Evidence work, your team will choose a medium to make a case to lawmakers about the national debt. You can choose to write a persuasive essay, create a multimedia presentation, or produce a videotaped commercial to make your case. You may choose how you make your case, but whichever medium you choose, you must have a well-researched and communicated argument that includes evidence to support your claims to lawmakers.

Hand out the final project rubric and discuss the criteria for assessment with the students.

As students work on their presentations, schedule conferences to provide feedback on drafts, ask probing questions, and redirect work as needed. Use notes from the observation sheet to provide structure for the conferences.

Final Reflection
As a class, reflect on the Essential Question and Unit Questions. Have students write their thoughts in a journal about each of them:

  • Should we spend more than we have?
  • How big is a seven trillion U.S. dollar debt?
  • Why should we worry about a seven trillion U.S. dollar debt?

Prerequisite Skills

  • Ability to compare and operate with numbers into the trillions
  • Experience using graphs to organize, display, and interpret data
  • Familiarity with multimedia presentation software

Differentiated Instruction


Resource Student

  • Make modifications as dictated in the student’s Individualized Educational Plan (IEP)
  • Provide visual aids and examples (such as documents, charts, and examples from this Unit Plan)
  • Supply an outline of the tasks and timeline for the project (including milestones)
  • Select groups best suited to work with the student
  • Provide extra time as needed to complete individual assignments

Gifted Student

  • Have the student send a persuasive case to a political official, searching the Web for e-mail addresses and Web sites of local politicians
  • Encourage the student to do more extensive research on each budget item by returning to www.kowaldesign.com/budget/money.html* (each of the blue links in this budget goes directly to the Web site for that federal department or program; the student can dig deeper into the more costly or obscure areas of the federal budget and create a presentation to teach the class what they learned through their further investigation)

English Language Learner

  • Provide visual aids and examples (documents, visuals, and examples from this Unit Plan)
  • Link the unit to the student’s prior knowledge and experiences, maybe relating debt to borrowing money from others
  • Use visual organizers (charts, tables, Web sites, and so forth) to help the student understand and conceptualize the content


A teacher contributed this idea for a classroom project. A team of educators expanded the plan into the example you see here.



National Debt

At a Glance


Grade Level: 7–9

Subjects: Government, Economics

Topics: Debt, National Economy

Higher-Order Thinking Skills: Problem Solving, Analysis, Decision Making

Key Learnings: Large Numbers, Debt, Deficit, National Budget Implications, Constructing an Argument

Time Needed: 45-minute lessons, 7 lessons