Teach the 2016 Election: Studying Candidates and the Issues

What Do Students Know about the Candidates and Today's Hot Button Issues ?

Where do candidates stand on the "Hot Button" issues of the 2016 Presidential Campaign?.

In the newly adopted College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, social studies teachers are encouraged to inform students about politics and civic behavior, both among individuals and within and across governmental bodies. The 2016 Presidential Election is providing a wonderful opportunity for students to be informed through research.

The introduction notes that the C3s are "answering a call for students to become more prepared for the challenges of college and career." The C3 Frameworks unite these goals with what they term as the third critical element: preparation for civic life.

The C3 Frameworks note that preparing students for an active civic life is critical to our nation's constitutional republic. This preparation can start in the very early grades and continue through high school since "Students of all ages are very curious about how decisions get made and [they] show interest in participating."

Within the C3 Framework, there is the Civic Learning Arc that "anticipates the concepts and tools necessary for informed, skilled, and engaged participation in civic life." This anticipation prepares teachers to encourage students to engage in current political events such as the 2016 Presidential Election.

There is also an emphasis on developing student inquiry skills, in Dimension 1 described in the Framework of the C3s. This Dimension 1 is dedicated to having students develop questions and plan inquiries: 

"Dimension 1 helps prepare students to identify and construct compelling and supporting questions and make determinations about the kinds of information sources that will be helpful in answering them. These capacities are essential for informed and engaged participation in civic life."

Who are the Candidates? 

Students can research the background of the candidates running for president and where they stand on important issues. Individual candidate bios can be found on their campaign websites:

Students may want to begin with the following questions before they develop their own inquiry for research:

Q: What leadership experience does this candidate have that makes him/her qualified to be the next president?

Q: What political offices, if any, has this person had in his/her career?

Q: What are the qualities you  would [the student] would like to see in a president?

Q: What question(s) would you like to ask the presidential candidates? (Dimension 1 Inquiry)

2016 Hot Button Issues:

Every political season brings up those divisive political issues that could make discussion in class difficult. Social studies teachers must be careful to allow for contrasting opinions on the following topics as objectively as possible. They must try to emphasize respectful speaking and listening in order to facilitate civil discussion on these issues in class.

Teachers can have students begin their research on the following:

Q:  What is each candidate’s stand on the following top issues of this presidential campaign?

  • the economy 
  • national security/terrorism
  • health care 
  • education 
  • women’s rights/gender equality
  • immigration  
  • taxes
  • climate change/environment
  • gun policy
  • foreign policy

Q: What other issues not listed above are a concern to me as a future voter?

Teacher/Student Resources for Issues in the 2016 Presidential Election 

There are a number of non-partisan websites for teachers to use in providing information on both the candidates and the top issues in the 2016 Election. These websites are student friendly for grades 7-12:

  • C-Span:  C-SPAN’s Video Library and Congressional Chronicle allows students to research and evaluate candidates for any election based on their positions on key policy issues.  "Through watching clips of candidate speeches, students will determine the candidates’ position on the economy, foreign policy, health care, immigration, and more."
  • FactCheck.org A nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that "aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics." The site monitors the "factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases."
  • InsideGov.com: "Deep insights from government data. Knowledge delivered.InsideGov is a government research site that uses Graphiq’s semantic technology to deliver deep insights via data-driven articles, visualizations and research tools."
  • PBS Learning Media: "Voting and elections are an essential part of the U.S. Government. Learn more about the process and history of elections while staying up to date on the latest news in the 2016 Presidential Election. There is Election Central, a destination for classroom resources to engage students during the elections including interactive map that offers "Candidates and Issues" 
  • Pew Research Center: a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public "about the issues, attitudes and trends [shaping the election]. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. "
  • Politifact.org: PolitiFact is a fact-checking website that rates "the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics. PolitiFact is run by editors and reporters from the Tampa Bay Times, an independent newspaper in Florida."
  • ProCon.org: Offers a Side-by-Side Comparison Between Candidates on Key Issues: "As ProCon.org has done for millions of readers in past elections, you get reliable, sourced information about where each presidential candidate stands on important issues. We have posted candidate responses to 68 issues so far, and we are adding new information regularly with the goal of covering 75 issues by Oct. 8, 2016 - one month before Election Day."
  • Scholastic News: Election- (Grades 5-10) The education publisher's website offers election coverage that includes: "How to run for President, interviews with the kids of candidates, life as President, and the history of the presidency." There is also a "meet the candidates" interactive page.​

    There are also a number of websites that provide graphic organizers or utilize online formats for students to directly engage with as they research each candidate's stand on the issues:

    Motivating Student Interest with Choice

    Teachers should be aware, however, that the best way to engage and motivate students is to offer choice in the topics they want to study and to give students choice in how they research. Students in grades 7-12 should be given every opportunity to organize their own research in a way that best helps their own understanding. They should be given the opportunity to choose and/or create their own organizers from the familiar organizers that have already been taught to them in the earlier grades, for example: T-charts, Venn Diagrams, Tree charts, Word webs, K-W-L Charts, Ladder, etc. Research supports choice as a way to improve critical thinking, and students should be given the opportunity to organize this research. 

    Finally, the C3 Frameworks encourage social studies teachers to prepare students to do their own research. This means students should be prepared to determine the validity of sources that will be helpful in answering their inquiry questions. Teachers should prepare students to take into consideration that for topics such as the presidential election there will be multiple points of view. Teachers should help students determine the purpose and potential use of any sources when doing research.

    Conclusion: Influence of the C3s

    In their article The C3 Framework: A Powerful Tool for Preparing Future Generations for Informed and Engaged Civic Life, authors Marshall Croddy and Peter Levine praise the C3s for their emphasis on civic preparedness:

    ".... it [C3s] can be an inspiring and useful tool for social studies teachers who dedicate their lives to preparing each new generation of students for informed, skilled, and engaged participation in the workings of our constitutional republic."

    The support the social studies teachers can give to students as they research who is running for president (biographies) and where these candidates stand on the issues is far more complicated than an occasional review of current events.  Student inquiry and the research that comes from such inquiry is critical to producing the next generation of American voters.