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Skills and Best Practices

Activity 2: Skills and Best Practices

Constructivist Approach to Teaching Social Studies

A constructivist approach to teaching is one that involves students actively in constructing knowledge with guidance from the teacher. In this approach, the teacher does the following:

  • Determines what basic knowledge and skills are to be learned
  • Determines what prior knowledge students have about the topic to be studied
  • Presents the phenomena related to the topic to be studied accurately in ways that relate the phenomena to the student’s experiences
  • Engages students in observing and reflecting on the phenomena presented and in communicating what they have learned about the topic

The following site makes the connection between the constructivist approach to teaching social studies and brain research.

Since both brain research and constructivist theory are beginning to impact current North American social-studies curriculum, this article summarizes insights from these two areas that should influence social studies for the 21st century. Particular attention has been paid to instructional innovations that are consistent with findings from brain research and application of theories of constructivism. Arguments have been made for a social-studies curriculum that is based on the classic reflective inquiry conceptualization of social studies because it stems from a constructivist position and is supported by brain-based views of teaching and learning.

Use of Time Lines in Social Studies

Understanding the sequence of events in social studies is critical to an understanding of cause and effect. Often teachers have students construct a time line as they proceed through the unit. Or, they may construct the time line in their classroom, using a wall or a bulletin board.

Issue Analysis

Issue analysis closes the loop in a research assignment for students. Students who are asked to research a topic should be expected to use this information for problem solving, decision making or issue analysis. If the instruction loop (gathering information, thinking about the information, and applying the information) is not completed, students will have difficulty remembering what they have researched. It may be helpful to use the following checklist to help students understand when they have reached the level of issue analysis in their thinking:

Evaluation Checklist for Issue Analysis

  • Topic selected has controversial components
  • Questions or points of view of the topic are clear
  • Bibliography is complete and properly formatted
  • Background information is summarized
  • Each source is examined for bias and audience.
  • Areas of conflict, compromise, or agreement are identified
  • Positions and solutions are evaluated (including motives of groups or individuals, feasibility and practicality, impact on policies, and consequences)

Formative Assessment

Activity 1: Formative Assessment

 Printable Student View

Here is a newspaper headline:

1. Describe the key principles and structure of the new government of Bulgonia.

2. Japan has a national education system where the national government defines what is to be taught in all of Japan’s public schools. Explain why, based on the U.S. Constitution, the United States does not have such a national education system.

Scoring Guide

Skills and Best Practices

Activity 1: Skills and Best Practices

Three Types of Learning

Help students take stock of what they know and do not know. Help them to be conscious of how they fill in their knowledge gaps and to evaluate their own learning. The Taking Stock Table and KWL Charts are ways of organizing information and encouraging student thinking. Since this module requires students to gather information for problem solving and decision making, it may be useful to review the stages of thinking with students. As this site points out, students need to be encouraged to engage in various levels of thinking:

The Three Types of Learning

There is more than one type of learning. A committee of colleges, led by Benjamin Bloom, identified three domains of educational activities. The three domains are cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Since the work was produced by higher education, the words tend to be a little bigger than we are used to. Domains can be thought of as categories.

Cognitive is for mental skills (Knowledge), affective is for growth in feelings or emotional areas (Attitude), while psychomotor is for manual or physical skills (Skills). Trainers often refer to these as KAS, SKA, or KSA (Knowledge, Attitude, and Skills). This taxonomy of learning behaviors can be thought of as “the goals of the training process.” That is, after the training session, the learner should have acquired these new sills, knowledge, or attitudes.

Promoting Higher-Order Thinking Skills

Make the classroom be a “thoughtful one.” Such a classroom emphasizes higher-order thinking skills. Teachers committed to this best practice do the following:

  • Promote study of a small number of topics in depth as opposed to superficial coverage of many topics
  • Make certain that lessons are planned and taught with coherence and with a close tie to one other
  • Allow students to think through answers to questions before being asked to respond
  • Ask questions that emphasize analysis and interpretation over the recall and repetition of information
  • Entertain and encourage consideration of different points of view and their justifications
  • Challenge students to explain their reasoning

Clarify and Refine Important Concepts

Concepts are categories for grouping and understanding phenomena. When students clarify and refine concepts, they focus on defining terms, on making distinctions between examples and non-examples, on showing how concepts relate to each other, and on making concepts meaningful by relating them to prior knowledge. Teachers committed to clarifying concepts do the following:

  • Present examples and non-examples of concepts seeking a “best example” for the concept
  • Cue students on those attributes that are critical attributes for the concept by focusing on the examples and non-examples and having students discuss their similarities and differences. (The Venn Diagrams are a good tool for exploring examples and non-examples.)
  • Provide students with evaluations of their efforts to identify the critical attributes illustrated by the examples and non-examples
  • Help students to enunciate and explain a definition of the concept
  • Help students to recognize whether the concept is a complex one which may have fuzzy boundaries, help them to enunciate salient features of the concept, and help them to understand and explain how different people may hold different conceptions and definitions of the concept.
  • Help students, through questions or discussion, to relate the concept to themselves and to their prior learning

Critical Thinking Skills

There is a growing body of knowledge that indicates that students can learn to think critically and to apply modes of thinking appropriate to social studies when such skills are taught explicitly in connection with social studies content. Teachers may help students with critical thinking skills by focusing on the following tasks:

  • Help students to understand the problem or challenge facing them
  • Help students individually or in groups to come up with plans of attack for addressing the problem or challenge
  • Help students work toward the solution of their problem using their plans of attack
  • Help students evaluate their solution of the problem through a rigorous assessment

Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning also contributes to higher-order thinking. As this site points out:

Cooperative learning has become increasingly popular in the last few years. The use of technology in the educational setting is also a relatively new phenomenon. The combination of cooperative learning and technology seems to be a match that could improve several aspects of education and learning. A great deal of research indicates that cooperative learning and the use of technology, separately, have positive effects on cognitive and affective learning. Some research, analyzing the combination of cooperative learning with technology, indicates positive results as well. However, there are few models that integrate cooperative learning with both technological and non-technological approaches to promote retention, understanding, and problem solving. Elements of teaching that promote higher-level thinking skills necessary for problem solving include discussions, reading, writing, summarizing, real-life situations, and collaboration.

Activity 3

Activity 3

Essential Question

Why will federalism continue to be a source of controversy in the United States?


The debate on federalism continues vigorously to this day and will certainly continue on into the future, because there are many questions related to the debate that are important to the citizenry. Many people are concerned about the cost of new federal programs and about whether decisions concerning these new programs should be made at the state or national level. Others are concerned that the government is assuming responsibilities that should be left to individuals. The main purpose of this activity is to help students decide what should be the proper balance between the powers of state and local government, on the one hand, and the federal government, on the other. This is a question our society will certainly deal with for a long time to come.

Additional Information


Strategy 1

Analyzing a Time Line and an Article to Gather Information for Decision Making

Provide students with copies of Timeline of Federalism and The New Federalism, which were developed by the Close-Up Foundation.

Have students examine the time line, focusing on the 1960s and 1970s and on the 1980s and 1990s and also have them read the article.

Establish the following questions for student research related to each of the following programs:

  • The New Deal
  • The Great Society
  • The Reagan Revolution
  • The Devolution Revolution
    • Who were its chief advocates?
    • What problems did it try to address?
    • What did it try to accomplish?
    • Who would benefit from it?
  • Suggest the following resources as additional sources of information:
    • PBS Videos
    • Social Studies School Service

Strategy 2


Students should use the current newspaper to find articles that deal with issues related to federalism. Select only articles that reflect a party position on the issue (Democratic or Republican)

Create a bulletin board to display these articles, putting the article under the proper heading of Republican or Democratic.

Conduct a class discussion of the bulletin board asking the students to decide:

  • What is the issue?
  • How is it related to federalism?

Check for Understanding

  • Decision-Making Question: Based on your research, where do you stand on the issue of federalism as it is exemplified by each of these programs? Support your response with evidence from the research material.

Activity 2

Activity 2

Essential Question

How has the relative power of federal versus state governments changed over time?


Major challenges to the nation, such as wars, often lead to increases of federal power. For example, the Great Depression impacted people’s lives and led to an increase in federal power as the federal government responded to the crisis by passing legislation to try to help those affected by the depression. FDR’s New Deal changed the nature of federalism in the United States in profound ways.

Instructional Strategies

Strategy 1

Using the Time Line

Use the computer lab to access the following website:
or provide all students with a copy of Timeline of Federalism.

Note: The author acknowledges the Close-UP Foundation for its ideas that are used in this activity.

Put the following purpose questions on the board or a transparency and have them review the time line:

  • What can you learn from this handout?
  • What changes in the idea of “Federalism” can you detect as you review the time line? Be prepared to justify your answers with specific information from the time line.
  • What specific change did you note between the years 1787-1791? Why is this change especially significant? (Be sure students understand that during those years, the legal basis of federalism was incorporated into the United States Constitution.)

Talk about how a time line shows change over time. Refer to the years 1798-1860. Have students use information from the time line to discuss the power struggle going on between those who wanted to have a strong federal government and those who wanted to preserve the powers of the states. Have students relate this discussion to the causes of the Civil War.

Have students refer to the following amendments:

Have students review these amendments from this perspective:

  • How has the power of the central government increased as the result of adding these amendments to the United States Constitution?
  • How did the concept of “federalism” change as a result of the Civil War and Reconstruction?

Have students review the remainder of the time line for trends in the increasing power of the central government. Ask them to provide specific examples this increasing power.

They might use the following issues as examples:

  • Civil rights
  • Interstate commerce
  • Grants-in-aid
    • Forestry
    • Highways
    • Vocational education
    • Health
    • General education
    • Highway funding

Have students summarize what they learned from the above discussion by returning to the Taking-Stock Table, correcting misconceptions in it and adding more information to the right-hand column.

Check for Understanding

  • How do time lines increase our understanding of a changing concept such as “Federalism”?

Strategy 2

Issue Analysis

Ask this question: “If there is a disaster, will people expect more or less of their government? What do you think?” Encourage students to give responses and welcome their responses, even if at this stage they may not be accurate.

Use this flow chart to analyze the consequences of a natural disaster.

Ask students to indicate possible responses that could go into the boxes. As they give answers, fill in the boxes. (Answers might include that people would expect the government to help the people find housing, to have increased police protection of private property to prevent looting, to provide loans or money to help people rebuild their homes, and so on.)

Divide the class into small groups and give each group similar flow charts. Ask them to analyze a different situation. Examples might be:

  • the United States is attacked by terrorists
  • a drought occurs and farmers do not have enough water to keep their crops alive

Use the following case study to further analyze the issue of how the central government tends to increase its power in times of crisis:

The Great Depression

In the 1930s there was an economic depression. It was so bad that whenever the term “The Great Depression” is used, most informed people think of the 1930s. We are going to analyze this event just as we did other disasters to learn how serious this situation was and how the central government tried to deal with the crisis. Pretend you are a newspaper reporter and answer the “Five W Questions and the How Question” as you analyze the Great Depression. Use the following websites to gather your information:

Have students continue their analysis of the Great Depression by looking at pictures of the great depression and asking grandparents and great-grandparents to interpret them.

You may find the Photo Analysis Worksheet useful as you do this activity. It was developed by the National Archives and Record Service to help students analyze and draw conclusions from primary source photographs.

Check for Understanding

  • Have students use the Great Depression Flow Chart to summarize this activity. Have students write a brief analysis in their notebook of how the Great Depression is an example of how a crisis can lead to an increase in power of the central government.

Strategy 3

Cause and Effect

Review the causes of the Great Depression and the impact that it had on American society. Talk about this as a cause-effect relationship. Explain that this same cause-effect relationship can be analyzed in terms of the consequences of presidential decisions in dealing with the crisis.

Have students use the following websites to examine some of the consequences of decisions made by Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt as they tried to deal with the Great Depression:

You may also find these sources useful as you do this activity:

To help compare the two presidents, encourage students to use the graphic organizer: 
Table 3: Comparing How Two Presidents Responded to the Great Depression.

Students may be directed to work individually or in teams.

In filling out the graphic organizer, students should begin with actions Hoover took and to the right list corresponding actions of Roosevelt, if any. Once that has been done, students should then list additional actions of Roosevelt.

Note: Another good website for this activity was developed in Bergen County, New Jersey, probably by and for the students of the Bergen County Technical Schools.

Have students analyze the consequences of presidential decision making on the concept of “federalism” in the United States

  • Discussion Question: Which president had the greatest impact on changing this concept?

Check for Understanding

Place the following sentence on the chalkboard:

The New Deal Changed U.S. Federalism Radically

Divide students into groups of five students each, and inform them that they work in an office at a history museum. The museum director met with them and assigned them the task of developing a display related to the sentence on the chalkboard. The director wants each group to identify and be prepared to explain what should go into the display related to the New Deal. Be sure the discussion from within the group touches on important ideas, content-wise, to include in the display.

List these ideas quickly on the chalkboard or on an overhead transparency as they give them. Then, ask them for ideas for how they might display such ideas, listing those ideas as well.

Teacher writing on chalkboard

Activity 1

Activity 1

Essential Question

How are federal and state powers and responsibilities distributed, shared, and limited by the United States Constitution?


In a constitutional system, the powers of government may be retained by the central government, retained by smaller governmental units with the central government having limited powers, or power may be shared between the central government and local and/or state governments. In the United States, we operate under this federal system of shared governmental powers as defined by the United States Constitution

Additional Information

Instructional Strategies

Strategy 1

Assessing Prior Knowledge

  • Have your students review the purpose for a KWL chart. Remind them that new information is best learned by relating it to prior knowledge. Explain to them that a “Taking-Stock Table” is the same kind of strategy for linking new information to prior knowledge.
  • Have students click on the Taking-Stock Table and fill in Columns 1 and 2 first independently and later as a class. Ideas can be written on the chalkboard or on a transparency. You may want to suggest a few topics such as: funding of highways, education, law enforcement, coining money, building prisons, etc. for context. Corrections to student misunderstandings found in Column 1 can be made later in the module (see Strategy 6) as a check for understanding. Inform students that they will fill out the third column later in the unit.

Check for Understanding

  • Do I have Columns 1 and 2 in the Taking-Stock Table filled out as accurately as I can?

Strategy 2

Gathering Information

Comparing Federal and Confederal Systems

Using lecture, readings, Internet sources, and/or the additional information section of this module, have students discuss the meanings of these three concepts:

  • federal system
  • confederal system
  • unitary system

Enhance student understanding by using primary sources such as the Articles of Confederation (Articles I-III) and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.


Having students explain how the Articles of Confederation is most consistent with a confederal system and how the U.S. Constitution is most consistent with a federal system.


Strategy 3

Compare and Contrast

Assign students to small groups to compare and contrast a confederal system with a federal system. Have them show their comparisons using a Venn diagram as their graphic organizer. Have groups compare their Venn diagrams and make improvements to them. The completed Venn Diagram below can be used to summarize the discussion.

 Printable Student View

Venn Diagram to Compare Federal and Confederal Systems

Have students use the T-Charts to identify advantages and disadvantages of each system of government.

Have students decide in small groups whether they believe they as American citizens would be better off with a federal or a confederal system. Encourage students to take an opposing view following the reports of each group. Model this strategy for the students.

Extension: This activity could be repeated, this time comparing unitary systems to federal and confederal system.


Strategy 4

Cooperative Learning Strategy

Have students use “Expert Groups” to do a Constitutional analysis of federal powers versus state powers as enumerated in the U. S. Constitution.

Assign students to their cooperative groups and provide each group with a copy of the United States Constitution.

Assign one of the following topics to each expert group:

1. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution

  • Ask students to explain in their own words, clause by clause, what powers the Constitution gives to Congress. Help them with their thinking on these matters and make corrections as necessary. As much as possible, promote learning by asking questions, rather than by passing on information in order to place on the students the burden of translating ideas from constitutional language into everyday language.

2. Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution

  • Ask students to explain, clause by clause, what powers the Constitution forbids to Congress and the federal government.

3. Article I, Section 10

  • Ask students to explain what powers the Constitution forbids to both the federal government and to state governments.

Note: There will be some words unfamiliar to the students, such as “imposts,” “duties,” “excises,” “naturalization,” “letters of marque and reprisal,” “militia,” and “tribunals.” Such terms are typically found in government or civics textbooks in the books’ Constitution annotations or in their glossaries. The important thing is to help students put those terms into today’s language as much as possible.

Have students summarize and share their findings with other groups. Encourage students to use good questioning techniques to probe for additional information.


Strategy 5

Simulation Activity/Application

Divide students into small committees of two to five students. Give each committee a copy of the United States Constitution. The Constitution may be found on the Internet using these websites:

Give each group a copy of Table 1: Is it Constitutional?

Table 1 Scoring Guide

Inform the student committees that they are assuming the role of members of a state legislature in our early history, when the United States was a young nation. Inform them that their committee has been given the job of looking at some of the bills proposed in the legislature. The student’s task’s deciding which of those bills would be within the power of their state to pass according to the U.S. Constitution. The subject matter of the bills is in the left-hand column of the table that follows. The committees job is to answer the question in the right-hand column for each of the bills:

  • Each committee should indicate for each bill listed whether the U.S. Constitution would permit the state to pass the bill into state law.

Select a student from each group to serve on the United States Court of Appeals. Each group’s job is to now defend their decisions before the United States Court of Appeals. This court will decide whether it agrees with the decisions of the state legislature. It is important that the state legislators cite from the United States Constitution specific clauses that may be used to support their position.

Select a different student from each group to serve on serve on the United States Supreme Court. Have one person on the Supreme Court serve as Chief Justice. He or she may be appointed by the teacher or may be selected by other members of the court. The Chief Justice should call on the Courts of Appeals to report its decision one one of the laws that generated considerable discussion. Judges on the Supreme Court may then ask members of the Court of Appeals to report on the court’s rationale for its decision, following which the Supreme Court would huddle briefly and then announce its decision on whether the bill would be constitutional. Have the Supreme Court explain its reasoning by citing a clause or provision of the Constitution

Use the scoring guide to summarize the activity. In some cases, it may be possible to argue with the scoring guide. It is less important that the answer is precisely correct than that students have sound arguments defending their positions.

Scoring Guide

Note: This same activity can be modified with students roleplaying that they are members of Congress and are reviewing proposed bills from the perspective of legislative committee members. Students should use Table 2: Is it Constitutional? for this version of the simulation.

Table 2 Scoring Guide

Formative Assessment

Activity 3: Formative Assessment

Printable Student View

Writing to Persuade in Social Studies

Identify a key decision-maker in your community and have the students write a persuasive letter to that person to:

  • state your position on the issue
  • tell why it is an issue (use facts to support)
  • suggest a solution with a plan of action (use facts to support)
  • restate your main point

Scoring Guide

Skills and Best Practices

Activity 3: Skills and Best Practices

Service Learning

Community service that is part of the school program is referred to as service learning. Some school systems have even gone so far as to require a service learning project prior to graduation. This service learning requirement is reflective of the idea that good citizenship requires people to get involved in their communities and this experience should be started at an early age. In addition, students need to see the relevancy of what they are learning and service learning provides this link to the real world. The service learning generally consists of four parts:

  • Students identify a real community need
  • The service is tied to academic goals
  • Students reflect on and evaluate their service learning experience
  • Adults join in student recognition and celebration

Problem Solving

Students need to review the problem-solving process. In addition, the steps in the problem-solving process needed to be posted in the classroom.

Although elementary students may need additional help in walking through these steps in the problem-solving process, students need to be aware that problem solving is a process that is learned and practiced.

The following steps have been carefully researched and have application for students K-12.

Problem solving is the systematic use of a stepwise approach to answering complex questions or addressing difficult issues (Levine, 1999). Dr. Levine listed the following as the critical steps in problem solving:

  • Recognizing a problem when you see a problem
  • Stating exactly what the problem is
  • Searching memory to see if a similar problem has been dealt with in the past
  • Searching and using prior knowledge and experience to solve the problem
  • Preview the desired outcome
  • Decide if the problem can be solved
  • Break the process of attaining the desired outcome into a series of steps
  • Conduct research
  • Consider alternative strategies for solving the problem
  • Select the best strategy
  • Talk oneself through the task
  • Pace yourself
  • Monitor progress
  • Manage difficulties
  • Stop when the problem is solved
  • Reflect on the effectiveness of the problem-solving process and store it away in long term memory for later use

Formative Assessment

Activity 2: Formative Assessment

Printable Student View

By completing the “Pledging to Vote” form and fully conducting the activities it calls upon you to undertake, you will successfully demonstrate your understanding of the importance of American citizens age 18 years or older exercising their right to vote.

Key steps:

Section 1: Use the blank lines to make an accurate and thoughtful statement of “why it is important for citizens to vote.”

Section 2: Share your statement and discuss the importance of voting with adults who are 18 years of age or older to see if:

  • they understand why it is important to vote
  • how their pledge to vote is an example of good citizenship

After your discussion, ask them to pledge to vote by signing your form.

Your teacher will evaluate you on the quality of your response in Section 1 and whether you successfully share the importance of voting with at least two adults; including getting their signatures in Section 2.

REMEMBER: As with all things oriented to citizenship, your good efforts can really make a difference!

Printable Student View

Pledging to vote

My name is:______________________________

Though I am not of voting age, I recognize the importance of voting. United States citizens who are 18 years of age or older should vote in local, state, and national elections because… 

My age is:_____. I will meet the age requirement to vote in __________ years. I pledge to fulfill my duty as an American by offering my signature in testimony of my vote in future years.

Student Signature:______________________ Date:___________

Though I will not be able to exercise my right to vote for a number of years, I can share the importance of voting now. The signatures of citizens who are 18 years of age or older that appear below are testimony of the fact that I have shared my understanding of the importance of voting with them and have asked them to set a good example of citizenship by pledging to vote in all local, state, and national elections.

1. ___________________ 3. ______________________

2. ___________________ 4. ______________________

Scoring Guide

Skills and Best Practices

Activity 2: Skills and Best Practices

Computers in the Classroom

The computer site referred to in this website has a wealth of information appropriate for this module and this activity. However, the research is still not definitive on how much computers have contributed to student achievement, at the expense of more traditional approaches. Teachers will want to continue to think about how computers can be effectively used as an additional tool in the repertoire of good teaching strategies. This website provides some important “think abouts” when using computers in the classroom.

“‘What is the potential of the computer?’ is a meaningless question,” Kurland says. The question should be What is the potential of the computer in a particular classroom with a particular teacher?'”

–Midian Kurland, Director,
Bank Street Writing Project

Active Learning

Like the support for open-classroom settings, the support for active, hands-on learning is nearly universal among researchers and reviewers.

Supporting documents include Colville and Clarken (1992); Drake (1987); Finklestein (1988); Hardin (1991); Harwood (1990); Leppard (1993); Mabe (1993); Miller (1985); Morse (1993); Mullins (1990); Naylor (1990); Newmann (1987); Parker (1990); Patrick (1988, 1990); Pereira (1988b); Rowe (1990); Thomas (1984); VanSledright and Grant (1994); White (1989); Wood (1990); and Wraga (1993).

Specific kinds of active learning recommended by these writers include:

  • instruction and practice in-class discussion
  • responding to open-ended questions
  • research (using materials other than texts)
  • writing projects including letter writing
  • cooperative group projects
  • brainstorming
  • role-play
  • simulations
  • perspective taking
  • on-site learning
  • observation
  • mock trials
  • case studies
  • town meetings
  • interaction with guest speakersother resource persons
  • community service projects

Civic education requires active learning. A report on civic education is found at: