Lesson 1 Activity: What is Poverty? A KWL Exercise

What is Poverty? – A KWL Exercise

KWL Activity download .doc file

Video Demonstration

Lesson Overview

KWL is a familiar and productive method of engaging student interest in a new topic of study. By allowing students to share their “walking around knowledge” about world poverty, the KWL exercise brings the class to a common starting point for their investigation of the relationship between capitalism and poverty.

KWL stands for the guiding questions used to organize thinking and learning about a specific topic:
K – What do we KNOW?
W – What do we WANT to know?
L – What have we LEARNED?
Typically, “K” and “W” are asked at the beginning of a unit of study, to define a starting point and to set the parameters of inquiry. “L” is asked at the end of the unit, bringing closure by allowing students to articulate their gains in knowledge.


  • prepare 3 flip charts, posters, or overhead transparencies:
What Do We KNOW about World Poverty? What Do We WANT to Know about World Poverty? What Have We LEARNED about World Poverty?
Think about:

  • Who are the poor?
  • How do we decide who is “poor”?
  • How is poverty in America the same as / different from world poverty?
  • Where do the poor live?
  • Why are people poor?
  • How do people get out of poverty?
Unit Questions:

  • What is poverty and who are the poor?
  • What is capitalism?
  • How do capitalist institutions affect the poor

Your questions:

  • What do you think:
  • Is capitalism good for the poor ?
  • Why do you think so?

Time Required:

  • 1 class period


  1. Explain to students that the purpose of this lesson is to create a starting point for the unit by constructing a common understanding of what we mean by “world poverty” and what we think of when we refer to “the world’s poor.” Give the following directions:
    • Take out a sheet of paper and a pen or pencil.
    • When I say, “a poor person,” what mental picture do you see?Write 4 or 5 words or short phrases that describe the person you saw.
    • When I say “poverty,” what image comes to mind?Again, write several descriptive words, short phrases, or numbers.

    Repeat the process with the following:

    • poverty in the United States
    • poverty in the world’s developing countries
    • poverty 100 years ago
    • poverty in our town (city) (area)

    Instruct students to keep their papers for reference during the next part of the activity.

  2. Introduce the poster chart entitled “What Do We KNOW about World Poverty?” (You may also use the board or overhead transparencies and transfer the results to poster format later.) Explain to students that the purpose of the chart is simply to define a starting place for our inquiry into the relationship between capitalism and poverty. Entries on the KNOW chart are our “walking around” knowledge – our thoughts and beliefs about a topic. In the course of the unit, we’ll probably find that some of what we think we know is true, but some isn’t.
    • Point out the following sub-questions on the chart:
      • Who are the world’s poor?
      • Where are they?
      • How do we know if someone is poor?
      • Why are people poor?
      • How is poverty in America the same as / different from world poverty?
    • Note: Most students’ conceptions and knowledge of poverty are, understandably, based on their experience in the United States. Use the question about the similarities and differences of poverty in the U.S. and poverty in the developing world to turn their focus outward, since the lessons and activities target the world problem of absolute poverty rather than the American issue of relative poverty.
    • Ask students to look at the words they jotted down in the visualization exercise in preparation for filling out the “What Do We KNOW?” chart.
  3. Solicit entries for the KNOW chart. (It is possible to run this as a brainstorming exercise, but may be more useful to require discussion and near-consensus before an item is posted on the list. And it may be that the list is very short.)
  4. Introduce the poster entitled “What Do We WANT to Know about World Poverty?” Point out the sub-questions that the upcoming unit proposes to answer:
    • What is poverty and who are the world’s poor?
    • What is capitalism?
    • How do capitalist institutions affect the poor?

    Direct students to review the KNOW chart. Solicit entries for the WANT chart.

  5. Introduce the flip chart entitled “What Have We LEARNED About Poverty? Explain that this chart will be posted in the classroom with the other 2, to be filled in at the end of the unit.
  6. (Discussion after completing all lessons in Is Capitalism Good for the Poor?)
    • Engage students in a class discussion to complete the “What Have We LEARNED?” chart.
    • Review the WANT to Know chart to see if there are unanswered questions.
    • Review the KNOW chart. Do we want to cross off any of the “things we know” as being “not so”?
    • Discuss: “What have we LEARNED that helps us answer the question of whether capitalism is good for the poor?” (Optional: this may be an effective assessment question.)

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