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Inventing the Cotton Gin: A Class Debate

Students analyze four conflicting claims to the invention of the cotton gin and construct arguments to defend each claim.

Photography, Daniel Pratt's Cotton Gin, Continental Gin Company, LOC

This lesson provides students an excellent opportunity not only to delve into a seminal event in the development of the American South—the invention of the cotton gin—but also to experience the complexity of conflicting historical accounts and to analyze the concept of “invention” within an historical framework.

Students begin by reading a background essay on the development of plantations, available in the “essays” section on the left-side menu. Then, in small groups, students read about one of four claims to the invention of the cotton gin, and prepare to debate over who should receive credit for the invention. They conclude with a group discussion regarding the historical and socio-political implications of the debate. Source information is included with most, but not all, of the student resources. However, there is an extensive bibliography, linked on the left side of the lesson page, that includes citations for all student resources, as well as other useful materials for background information.

In addition to providing the opportunity for a compelling historical debate, this lesson, and others in the associated units provide excellent cross-curricular connections to science, engineering, and economics. Unit 3, “True Colors,” contains some especially interesting science activities to help give students greater contextual understanding of the history of various dyeing processes.

In general, this lesson—along with others from this site—provides students with key elements of historical context surrounding technological advancements in the textile industry. This context can provide a springboard for discussion of the complex social, political, and economic factors that influence change and progress in science and technology.


This lesson is part of a larger unit on early industrialization. To access the specific materials for this lesson, click on the “mechanization” link on the left side of the page, then click on Lesson 1.

Teachinghistory.org Lesson Plan Rubric
Field Criteria Comments
Historical Content Is historically accurate?


Includes historical background?

There are background essays for both students and teachers, as well as an extensive bibliography containing a variety of useful background resources.

Requires students to read and write?

The lesson requires extensive reading, and the discussion questions at the end could easily be adapted into a writing assignment.

Analytic Thinking Requires students to analyze or construct interpretations using evidence


Requires close reading and attention to source information?

Close attention to the perspective represented in each secondary source is key for students in preparing for the debate.

Scaffolding Is appropriate for stated audience?


Includes materials and strategies for scaffolding and supporting student thinking?

The reading is relatively accessible, but teachers may want to develop some guided reading questions as a scaffold for struggling readers or English Language Learners.

Lesson Structure Includes assessment criteria and strategies that focus on historical understanding?

While no formal assessment is included, the concluding discussion can serve as an informal assessment, and the teacher notes provide some general criteria for evaluating student responses to the discussion questions.

Defines clear learning goals and progresses logically?


Includes clear directions and is realistic in normal classroom settings?


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