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Teaching American Political Institutions Using Role-playing Simulations
Unformatted Document Text:  5 at all levels—to the intermediary institutions that structure citizens’ interactions with their government (e.g., parties, interest groups, and the media), a thorough knowledge of political institutions is necessary to truly grasp the inner workings of the American political system. In the Introduction to American Politics course I taught, political institutions represented nearly half of all substantive topics we covered, while roughly seven out of 20 chapters in our primary textbook were devoted solely to the workings of institutions (Fiorina et al. 2005). 1 Unfortunately, it can be difficult for students to learn about the dynamic nature of these institutions from the pages of a textbook. As Endersby and Webber (1995, 520) note, High school civics and the evening news socialize undergraduates toward a passive study of political institutions. But the interaction and dynamic compromise inherent in the development of public policy can be lost using teaching strategies in which an instructor merely describes this dynamic relationship to students. For example, it is important to know the textbook description of Congress as a bicameral institution, with representatives elected every two years and senators every six years, but such information does little to explain how these constitutional differences between the House and Senate can create incentives for members to act in different ways. Congress is a complex institution with numerous rules governing the consideration of business and multiple incentives structuring the behavior of members (Schickler 2001). The best way to understand the effects of these rules and incentives is to get inside the heads of the members themselves, and the most effective way to do so pedagogically is through the use of role-playing simulations. Although Congress is the focus of the simulations described in this paper, it is not the only political institution with interesting internal dynamics that can be taught using simulations. Political parties are continually struggling to manage the diverse interests of their internal 1 These seven chapters covered interest groups, political parties, the media, Congress, the presidency, the bureaucracy, and the courts. Additionally, institutions were a dominant theme in three other chapters covering public policy.

Authors: Gonzales, Angelo.
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at all levels—to the intermediary institutions that structure citizens’ interactions with their
government (e.g., parties, interest groups, and the media), a thorough knowledge of political
institutions is necessary to truly grasp the inner workings of the American political system. In
the Introduction to American Politics course I taught, political institutions represented nearly half
of all substantive topics we covered, while roughly seven out of 20 chapters in our primary
textbook were devoted solely to the workings of institutions (Fiorina et al. 2005).
1
Unfortunately, it can be difficult for students to learn about the dynamic nature of these
institutions from the pages of a textbook. As Endersby and Webber (1995, 520) note,
High school civics and the evening news socialize undergraduates toward a passive study
of political institutions. But the interaction and dynamic compromise inherent in the
development of public policy can be lost using teaching strategies in which an instructor
merely describes this dynamic relationship to students.
For example, it is important to know the textbook description of Congress as a bicameral
institution, with representatives elected every two years and senators every six years, but such
information does little to explain how these constitutional differences between the House and
Senate can create incentives for members to act in different ways. Congress is a complex
institution with numerous rules governing the consideration of business and multiple incentives
structuring the behavior of members (Schickler 2001). The best way to understand the effects of
these rules and incentives is to get inside the heads of the members themselves, and the most
effective way to do so pedagogically is through the use of role-playing simulations.
Although Congress is the focus of the simulations described in this paper, it is not the
only political institution with interesting internal dynamics that can be taught using simulations.
Political parties are continually struggling to manage the diverse interests of their internal
1
These seven chapters covered interest groups, political parties, the media, Congress, the presidency, the
bureaucracy, and the courts. Additionally, institutions were a dominant theme in three other chapters covering
public policy.


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