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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 an iceberg helps students remember the importance of looking deeper than the surface in order to better understand events in the past or present. This strategy can be used in many ways. For example, students can use it to organize their notes as they learn about a period in history as a way to review material, or as an assessment tool.

Learning Strategies 

  • Determining Importance
  • Synthesizing
Cause and Effect, Making Meaning

Lesson Plan Stages 

  • Reflection
  • Synthesis

Content Areas 

  • ELA
  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies

Learning Strands 

  • Reading

Common Core Instructional Shifts 

  • Balancing Informative and Literary Texts
  • Building Knowledge in the Discipline
  • Text-Based Answers
  • Writing from Sources


Select an event that students are exploring in class. It can be from literature, history, science, math, or current events. Students should already be familiar with this event. Alternatively, select a claim, conclusion, or opinion that is found in a text or set of texts.

Activity Steps 
  1. Ask students to list what they know about icebergs. Or, you can show them a picture of an iceberg. Ask students to draw an iceberg on a piece of paper or in their journals, making sure that there is a tip, a waterline, and a larger area below the surface.

    The main idea which should emerge is that what you see above the water is only the tip of the iceberg. The larger foundation rests below the surface. Alternatively, you can create your own iceberg template for students to use.

  2. 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?

  3. Students can do this brainstorming individually, in small groups, or as a whole group. Thoughts should be recorded through some means: individual lists, chart paper or board, or computer app.

  4. Ask students to think about what caused this event. Record their responses on the iceberg graphic organizer. Answers to the question “What factors influenced the particular choices made by the individuals and groups involved in this event?” should be writ

    Factors might include events from the past (an election, an economic depression, a natural disaster, a war, or an invention) 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.

  5. Students debrief about the event in their journals and/or in class discussion.

    · They should respond to questions such as these: · · 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?

Adaptation for the Math Classroom 

There are many situations when students use math to analyze how the change in one variable effects the change in another variable.  Relationships between independent and dependent variables in algebra; correlation/causation within statistics; and properties of geometric relationships all require an understanding of cause and effect.  In each of these cases, the iceberg model could help students analyze the relationship between the actions and the results.

Downloadable Resources 
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