Harriet Tubman: Recognizing the Human Agency

Students will work in collaborative groups to examine the life and work of Harriet Tubman to analyze to what extent she changed history.

Created by Tom Morton Governor General's History Awards Winner 1998 recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History

Posted August 22, 2011

Lesson Overview

Students will work in collaborative groups to examine the life and work of Harriet Tubman to analyze to what extent she changed history.  Students will use the historical thinking concept of cause and consequence to determine how much agency Harriet Tubman had in relation to other groups and social forces. An extension activity could be to write a speech or essay summarizing their thinking.

Time Required

2 lessons

Historical Thinking Concept(s)

This lesson plan uses the following historical thinking concepts: establish historical signifcance, analyze cause and consequence.

Learning Outcomes

Student will:

  • Describe Harriet Tubman’s significance to the history of Canada
  • Analyse and assess the methods used by Tubman to bring about changes in specific political and social conditions
  • Assess the importance of human agency in causing historical events

Background Information

Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad by Tom Morton will be useful for background information.

The Lesson Activity


  1. The teacher introduces the question of agency to the class. Ask students to consider these questions:
    1. To what extent are we responsible for what happens in our lives and to what extent are we influenced by things outside of our control? For example, who was responsible for the mark that you received on your last report card: was it all your responsibility or did your parents have a role? Your teachers? Your classmates? The school system?
    2. Invite the students to consider this question of human agency in history with the case of Harriet Tubman: “To what extent did she change the lives of slaves? Was she the key person that led the slaves to Canada? Did she abolish slavery? Or were there other people and large social forces like religion involved?”
    3. The same kind of question about who or what makes a difference is important for history. Many argue that humans make history just as you can say that you are responsible for your marks. There have certainly been agents of great change, individuals who have changed the course of events. For example, Joan of Arc pushed the English from her country of France and Mohatma Gandhi did the same in India. Examples like these would be supporting evidence for the opinion that individuals make an important difference.
    4. Yet even these great people did not control events alone. They needed the support of many other people. Conversely, social forces like religion, wars, and the economy influenced the history of France and India. Gandhi was the leader of the independence movement but he could not stop the division of his country or the war that followed. Gandhi was just one of the many forces to influence the history of India. To what extent do we change events or are we controlled by outside forces?


Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad by Tom Morton

Who Makes History? Handout

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