A monarchy is ruled by a king or queen. A democracy is run by elected representatives. A dictatorship is run with a single authoritarian rule. These are the basic principles of systems of government. However, government rule is so much more complicated than that.
How does a country transition from a monarchy to a dictatorship? How does a federal democracy affect local governments? Are some forms of rule better than others?
You may find that your systems of government lessons get increasingly complicated as you dig into different discussions. While this is great for engaging students, it also makes lesson planning more difficult. Here are a few ways to discuss government systems with your students, regardless of their ages.
Start With Basic Democracy Resources
Teachers often start their lesson plans on different forms of government with a democracy overview. This provides immediate touchpoints for students because they connect the lesson to the United States and their local communities. From there, you can move on to other systems of government and compare and contrast them to the United States.
One resource to bookmark and return to throughout the year is the National Archives Education Program. This branch of the National Archives offers multiple lesson plans that you can tap into related to different parts of governmental systems. Some lesson plans use political cartoons to show how different branches affect each other, while others talk about executive vetoes and how Congress is formed.
Another resource is iCivics, which has lesson plans that focus on teaching different forms of government. This is a non-partisan organization with the goal of creating informed students who can grow into active adults. Turn to this group work worksheets, games and discussion guides.
The team at Learn Bright created an interactive lesson plan that allows teachers to discuss multiple types of government at once. Students are broken up into groups and each group is assigned a system of government. Students then either answer various questions about how the school day would be run under this rule — or they get to simulate it themselves.
For example, the democracy group might vote on what to eat at lunch, while the monarchy group will have to follow the king or queen’s rule. You can create ways to randomly assign rulers, like the oldest student or the student whose name comes second alphabetically is the king, dictator or president.
Look at Other Aspects of Government
Systems of government are often discussed at a federal level, but state and local governments also play a major role in the day-to-day lives of students. Consider creating lesson plans that talk about the different sizes of government and their roles.
David Childs, a tenured professor at Northern Kentucky University, sets out information and resources with lesson plans for different levels of government. You can use the materials to introduce checks and balances and open your classroom for debate on large-scale versus small-scale issues.
You can also consider how government systems compare to economic policies. Teacher Lisa Herman-Ellison created a series of discussion questions for exploring various economies at economics website EconEdLink. The United States is a democracy and has a capitalist economy. How does one system affect the other? Do some forms of government lend themselves to other economic types? Where are these exceptions? With this lesson, students can learn where economic systems are separate from government and where they overlap.
As you discuss different systems of government, try to find ways to make learning fun. Homeschoolers Karen Loutzenhiser and Michelle Copher created a match game that breaks down different types of government and their characteristics. You can make this more advanced by creating matches for economic structures and local versus federal government. There are a lot of moving pieces when learning about government; games and activities can refresh students while preventing confusion.
Create Conversations Around Communism and Socialism
Depending on the grades you teach, you may have more flexibility around how you present different systems of government. There are many different activities you can launch and stories you can tell about governing bodies throughout history.
For example, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation provides several resources that tie this system of government to modern events. Communism is often taught in regard to the Soviet Union in the early 20th century, even though several countries use this form of rule at present. There are fact sheets about different countries, videos from people who experienced communism, and connections between modern news events (like the war in Ukraine) and communist rule.
While the VoC website is important and useful, it is also valuable to discuss how fear of other government systems can create just as toxic an environment for citizens. History teacher Luke Rosa, creator of the website Students of History, shares several resources for discussing the Cold War. You can discuss the Red Scare and its effects, along with the Lavender Scare that followed. Rosa includes information on anti-colonization and what this meant for Africa, India and other parts of the world.
Additionally, you can bring books into your classroom to enhance your lessons. Teacher Daina Petronis at Mondays Made Easy has multiple lesson plans related to George Orwell’s 1984, which is often used to discuss government and authoritarian structures. There are many ways you can tie Orwell’s book to the present day — including discussing fake news, exploring social media and the public eye, and debating whether modern comparisons of 1984 to today are fair.
Lessons about government (and especially communism) can be heavy and difficult for some students. There are ways to introduce communism and other forms of government in a somewhat lighter manner. The team at Tus Clases Particulares shares a lesson plan on teaching Marx’s Theory of Communism for younger learners, using sweets. Distribute jelly beans or other candies evenly or unevenly to students to discuss different forms of government and economies. Students get more or less candy based on the different laws of the land.
Discuss Government Changes and Revolutions
While it is important for students to understand systems of government, they can also benefit from learning about how different government structures change. You may find yourself tying systems of government to the American and French revolutions, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and European colonization across the world.
Outside of the American Revolution, it’s possible to tie changes in government systems to the United States. The team at Learning for Justice created a discussion guide for the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. You can modify these discussions to the student ages you teach. What were the effects of overthrowing a monarchy? How has Hawaii changed since statehood? This may become a heated topic for your students.
You can also look into the people connected to different systems of government and the impact they had on history. In an article for the Jewish Women’s Archive, high school student Lucy Waldorf writes about her exploration of anarchist feminists, particularly Emma Goldman. These women developed strict views of what they considered right and wrong and then took steps to fight for their beliefs.
“While I don’t remember my first interactions with anarchist philosophy, I remember learning about Emma Goldman from a poster on the wall of my fourth grade Hebrew school classroom,” Waldorf writes.
Government is inherently messy. Different systems have their flaws and each country has strengths and weaknesses related to its governmental structures. There’s a lot to discuss here.
Leave Room for Debate
As you review different forms of government and various laws that come from them, you may find yourself in heated classroom discussions. Younger students might parrot what their parents say or what they hear on the news, while older students might be exploring their own political beliefs for the first time.
“As teachers, we must reach students where they are and use their existing knowledge and frame of reference to connect the content with their lives,” says Chris Dier, 2020 Louisiana Teacher of the Year. He describes how his students continue to bring up the attack on the United States Capitol building on January 6, 2021, in class — particularly as they discuss government and history.
“If the attack on the Capitol is a newfound frame of reference, then it is one we must not shy away from to preserve comfort at the expense of a dangerous status quo.”
When students talk about current events, they are trying to make classroom discussions relevant to their lives. They are forming lasting connections which can help them remember these lessons.
“Our job is to study that which happens outside the classroom, bring it into the classroom, offer content, and help make sense of it so our students know what is going on when they go back out into the social world,” says Duane Moore, a high school government teacher.
As a teacher, you can prepare yourself for these discussions and take steps to create a safe environment for your students. This can allow you to open the door for debate without letting your class dissolve into name-calling and yelling.
Judith L. Pace, author of “Hard Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Issues,” created an eight-element framework for introducing hot button issues in the classroom. This takes preparation on your part and a willingness to step in when emotions run high. It includes thinking about your position on the issue and the pros and cons of disclosing your own views.
It’s possible to teach the different systems of government from a purely factual level. Your students can learn the technical details between a democracy, monarchy and authoritarian rule. However, there are also countless opportunities for debate, comparisons between countries and historic touchstones to highlight. By getting creative with your lesson plans, you’ll engage your students and make these government systems relevant.