Critical Thinking and Application; Using Constitutional Knowledge to Deepen Learning

With so much curriculum to cover, all of US History and Government, the question is often posed as to why we spend so much time sketchnoting and working through the Constitution line by line. Other teachers find that using summaries, moving through the document with game-like lessons, or graphic organizers work well for their students. Of course all types of teachers are needed and all students need teachers that can guide them towards knowledge. 

In my perspective learning the foundational documents of your government is the most important unit in school. It is one of the few learning objectives that directly affects all students and application is immediate and everywhere. 

Working through the Constitution and having to decode each line to put into sketches forces that kids to truly understand the meaning. In this way students can then develop critical thinking skills by taking each article section and clause and interpreting them for themselves. They are not receiving talking points from me, there is no influence over what to think. They have to create their own ideas simply based on the text. 

This seems to be missing in our current media cycle. On every news station, media outlet, or social media account we are deluged with people telling us what to think. There is hardly a space in the world where people ask you to think for yourself, form your own thoughts based on facts and articulate it. Now people only want to know if you agree or disagree, but how does this help our students?

In this unit students are allowed to struggle through material, interpret it based on their world knowledge and voice it in a safe setting. The main reason this unit is allotted this amount of time is to pull through all of the nitty gritty aspects of government. Once we move on from our Constitution unit the expectation is that all students are scholars and will now be able to apply their knowledge of the Constitution to future units and current events. That is the critical thinking. 

The Constitution is ingrained in every part of our lives which gives the opportunity for application on a constant basis. Even casual side conversations bring on a new tone. Students start talking about a news item and their analysis is heightened. Each day inevitably the question always comes back to “Well, is it Constitutional?” Forcing students to put away emotionally based arguments and find solid evidence to support their point of view. They often get into discussions about ethics vs. law. The conversations get deep.

This thinking pervades all parts of our class now. As we move on to different time periods, presidents and conflict the question of Constitutionality follows them wherever they go. Learning about the Louisiana Purchase? Was it constitutional? Was the Mexican American War constitutional? Suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War? Was that constitutional? 

Instead of crushing through history, memorizing facts and dates a deeper understanding is evolving. How do political leaders interpret the Constitution? Is it ok to “bend” the meaning for a good cause? Who determines if it is a good cause? The learning that could be superficial drill and kill material is now heightened because of their expertise of Constitutional knowledge. The blue copies of the Constitution still flutter out of backpacks to site articles, sections and clauses as evidence. Leaders are questioned, conflicts are approached through a different lens and students are truly engaged. 

 Students now frame the world in a different way than they had two months before. The conversations are not emotional, they are logical. Students stop and really listen to each other to try to find their points of view. They challenge each other, respectfully, actively listening to each other and weighing the pros and cons of the arguments. They are not automatically dismissing others, name calling or being rude. Points across the political perspective are being voiced, respected and they are changing each other’s minds. 

What am I doing? Just listening. This is not my show. My opinions do not matter. Most importantly I do not offer them. I am apolitical, only guiding learning. This is a student space, safe and judgement free.  Critical thinking flows freely because there is no “right” way to think. The goal is only to think. 

This needs to be a larger conversation in education. 

Are we encouraging critical thinking and application to our lessons? 

Are our students being encouraged to create their own thoughts and apply them to the world? 

This is where our educational system seems to fail. In general we are still feeding knowledge that is easily google-able. The questions must be posed and answered constantly. Students don’t need general knowledge they need the ability to apply knowledge to an ever evolving world. They need to know how systems work, and creatively problem solve. 

How can we bring critical thinking and application to all content areas on all levels of education?

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