Debate and Inquiry-Based Instruction on Presidential Impeachment

Russell Hammack, Jacksonville State University

Lisa Matherson and Elizabeth Wilson, The University of Alabama

After the completion of the Russia political interference investigation and with the recent Ukrainian Presidential phone call controversy, the U.S. House of Representatives has moved forward in the last two months with an official impeachment inquiry, led by Representative Adam Schiff (Costa & Rucker, 2019). This impeachment process, can lead to the accusation of a criminal wrongdoing, but also the removal of office of the president. Britannica (2019) states:

In the federal government of the United States, the House of Representatives institutes impeachment proceedings by authorizing a formal inquiry by the House Judiciary Committee, which may then recommend articles of impeachment (an impeachment resolution) for a vote by the full House (articles of impeachment may also be introduced in the House without a formal inquiry). If the articles are approved, a trial is held in the Senate, and conviction is obtained by a vote of at least two-thirds of the senators present. In Great Britain conviction on an impeachment has resulted in fine and imprisonment and even in execution, whereas in the United States the penalties extend no further than removal and disqualification from office. (p.1)

            Historically, both the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton led to a formal charge of misconduct; however, in both cases, there were not enough votes to remove either president from office (U.S. Senate, 2018). However, with the rising controversy over President Trump’s administration, is there enough evidence to bring forth articles of impeachment and conviction? To thoroughly examine the issue of impeachment within the classroom, we recommend using a method of inquiry; the Inquiry Design Model (IDM) coupled with the richness of academic debate (C3 Teachers, 2016).

Inquiry Using the IDM

  “Historical inquiry involves a process of learning and discovering in a cultivated culture of thinking and doing” (Kalmon, O’Neill-Jones, Stout, & Wood, 2012, p. 18).  Participating in this process gives students the ability to research, inquire, and gather information to support one side of an argument. Historical inquiries allow students to develop and construct interpretive accounts based on incomplete, complete, or contradictory information (van Drie & van Boxtel, 2008). “Students who research an issue then argue in support of it have a deeper, more meaningful encounter with the material than they do merely reading about it in a textbook” (Tumposky, 2004, p. 52). Thus, inquiry is a student-centered approach, along with guidance and facilitation from the teacher, resulting in a productive classroom environment (Grant, Swan, & Lee, 2017).

Inquiry fosters academic investigation and gathering evidence-based research for supporting arguments and conclusions (Levy, Thomas, Drago, and Rex, 2013). Inquiry also develops a deeper understanding through historical thinking skills that promote a democratic citizenship (Barton & Avery, 2016; Lévesque, 2008). Inquiry-based instruction embodies the rich fullness of the C3 Framework by engaging in disciplinary exploration that leads to defending ideas and concepts (NCSS, 2013). Social studies teachers can begin to introduce topics through developing compelling questions. These questions frame out the inquiry and provide a reference point for students. In addition, at the end of the inquiry, each student should be able, through careful research and collaboration, to develop a concise argument that answers the compelling question. Therefore, the compelling questions become the catalyst for the starting the inquiry.

Inquiry Design Model (IDM) Blueprint

Compelling QuestionWhat is the legal standard and procedure to impeach a president?
Standards and Practices2010 Alabama Course of Study- Social Studies 6th
Grade- 12-2 Recognizing domestic issues that shaped the United States since World War II Examples: McCarthyism, Watergate scandal, political assassinations, health care, impeachment, Hurricane Katrina 10th

Grade- 15-5 Explaining causes for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson 11th

Grade- 16 Describe significant foreign and domestic issues of presidential administrations from Richard M. Nixon to the present.

Examples: Nixon’s policy of détente; Cambodia; Watergate scandal; pardon of Nixon; Iranian hostage situation; Reaganomics; Libyan crisis; end of the Cold War; Persian Gulf War; impeachment trial of William “Bill” Clinton  

College and Career Readiness Standards – History/Social Studies 11-12

CCSS.ELA-Literacy. RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.5 Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.  
Staging the QuestionUsing the video clip on Presidential impeachment, how successful has the impeachment process regarding the removal of a President?
Impeachment Video  
Supporting Question 1 Supporting Question 2 Supporting Question 3
What is the process of impeachment described by the Constitution?  What were the charges and results of President Andrew Johnson’s and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment?Is there evidence to impeach President Trump?
Formative Performance TaskFormative Performance TaskFormative Performance Task
Write a paragraph describing the constitutional process of presidential impeachment.      Students will compare and contrast the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.      Students will participate in a debate on the impeachment of President Trump. Students will be asked to work in collaborative groups, using the Debate with Inquiry Mode for Social Studies, to develop their argument and reach a conclusion.
Featured SourcesFeatured SourcesFeatured Sources
  U.S. Constitution      Trial of Andrew Johnson The Articles of Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson
Trial of Bill Clinton
The Articles of Impeachment of President Bill Clinton
Mueller Report Mueller’s Testimony Ukraine Transcript      
Summative Performance TaskArgumentStudents will develop an interactive website, detailing the processes, historical aspects (former Presidents), and current examinations of Presidential impeachment. The purpose of this assignment is for students to display their understanding and expertise, while presenting their final product to their peers.  Website development using Wix
ExtensionStudents will construct a Presidential Interactive Timeline on impeachment; thus, providing information on the process, past impeachments, but also listing information to support or oppose the impeachment of President Trump. Timeline using Sutori
Taking Informed ActionAfter understanding the process of impeachment, and examining the evidence concerning President Trump, construct a letter to a local (Alabama) legislator arguing for or against articles of impeachment for President Trump.

Emphasizing Debate with the Inquiry

One of the most exciting and engaging activities among teachers and students is debate (Doyle, 2007). Debating in class incorporates the development of various types of skills that correlate with critical thinking, such as research, oral communication, organization, and logic (Jackson, 1973). According to Hooley (2007), debates and classroom discussions grants students the opportunity to gather information, discern what is essential, analyze the content, and frame their argument. Debating in the classroom embodies an open-ended format of historical scholarship with the emphasis placed on student discussions with colleagues in formulating deeper understandings of history (Musselman, 2004).  “Despite this political emphasis, middle and high school U.S. curricula rarely delve into the political bickering that surrounded governmental acts or discuss how historical events have helped today’s political landscape” (Journell, 2014, p. 57). In the deeply political divisiveness of our nation, having students respectfully debate political issues in a social studies classroom could be considered instructionally controversial (Taylor, 2017). However, with the growing need for students to understand multiple viewpoints and to construct decisions that engages their active citizenship, there is a need to model and experience the concept of debate while exploring evidence through the instructional method of inquiry.

Likewise, within the IDM model, additional supporting questions can be used for groups of students based on the affirmative and the opposing positions while implementing a debate as an activity within the inquiry. Social studies teachers could also provide featured sources or guide students through the research process of the inquiry.

Along with the C3 teachers IDM Model, we also developed a debate model that overlaps the IDM. Although the IDM offers an excellent framework for developing an inquiry-based investigation into multiple topics, we added an additional resource that extends from the IDM, in which students can develop their arguments by using pertinent information and also write down opposing points of view on the topic. Formulating historical arguments are based on using quotes, citations, and references (Poitras & Lojoie, 2013). By adding a place for an oppositional viewpoint, the student is then able to view the topic from multiple perspectives. Therefore, by the end of the debate, students can reflect in a debriefing session and ultimately reach their own decision based on the classroom debate.

Figure 1. Debate with Inquiry Model for Social Studies by Hammack, Matherson, and Wilson, 2018.

Using Debate Instructionally

Debating in the classroom grants students the opportunity to strengthen the development of an argument, supported by evidence, while allowing students to meet the challenges of critical thinking and oral persuasion (Dundes, 2001). Hunt (2006) contends that the benefit of debate extends past the content alone, helping with the advancement of critical thinking skills, research, and self-esteem. The National Council for the Social Studies (2008) notes that students can learn necessary skills in solving issues and problems through debates and discussions, which include the use of inquiry. However, to make a debate successful in a class that allows students to evaluate multiple viewpoints respectfully, a debate framework, that includes inquiry, must be modeled and implemented. This is our proposed classroom debate framework:

  1. Display great debate models before you start a debate Example: CNN Crossfire (CNN, 2014).
  2. Before the debate, divide the class equally into small or large groups (Larson & Keiper, 2013).
  3. Cite evidence to support your argument (through inquiry-based instruction— Inquiry Design Model (C3 Teachers, 2016).
  4. Once the debate begins, only one person speaks at a time. (Doyle, 2007).
  5. Attack the argument and not the person. (Doyle, 2007).
  6. Have students take time to debrief; to be able to see both sides of the issue or topic. (Larson & Keiper, 2013).
  7. Allow students to reach a decision. (Larson & Keiper, 2013).

Model the Debate

Debate is an exciting method that naturally incorporates inquiry while developing ideas and arguments based on evidence. However, to have a great debate within a classroom, teachers must carefully select a platform of debate. One method of debate that we recommend within our framework is a “Crossfire” platform (CNN, 2014). Taken from CNN’s Crossfire program, this debate platform allows a moderator to delegate questions and equal amounts of time for both sides of a debate to put forth their best argument concerning a specific topic. For classroom purposes, teachers could easily serve as moderators within a class; allowing for students to present their best arguments. Also, modeling expectations regarding a debate could serve as a great example: thus, playing several excellent excerpts from the CNN Crossfire show could be a superb example for students.

Equally Dividing the Class

            Equally dividing the class is also a crucial element within our framework of debate. A division must happen so that the class, as a whole, can experience the multiple perspectives concerning the topic. This will later add to the cognitive ability and skill of the students to be able to reach a conclusion after hearing and experiencing both sides of a particular issue. This will allow every student the opportunity to critically think about the evidence that has been presented and draw upon both the affirmative and the opposition. Even if the group or groups of students might already have a bias toward a particular issue it is important for students to argue from multiple perspectives so that they can have greater expertise concerning the subject matter and evaluate the issue after considering different subjective opinions.

Starting the Debate

            After students have gathered their information from using the IDM model, they can meet either collaboratively in small groups or large groups to discuss their findings relating to their research and inquiry. This collaboration allows time to formulate their potential arguments and examine counter-arguments that could be raised in the debate. Doyle (2007) contends that a well-organized debate should allow one person to speak at a time. Doyle’s (2007) position coincides with the CNN Crossfire model, which allows the moderator to give a specific amount of time, that is undisturbed, for each person to express their perspective. Jackson (1973) stated that, “since debate usually requires a cooperative effort, with at least one other person, in preparing for the final presentation, students should gain valuable insights into the processes involved in a dyadic relationship. This learning experience also offers an opportunity for the teacher to utilize the principles of peer-teaching” (p. 152). 

Debates can often spark emotions due to the nature of the issue and how it might affect the participants. To give students a civil experience in social discourse, teachers might consider explaining how to attack and defend the argument, and not the person (Doyle, 2017). Therefore, social studies teachers need to provide a respectful environment, so that multiple perspectives and opinions are valued, even if students do not agree. Respect is often defined as “worth of high regard or esteem.” (Merriam-Webster, 2019). “There is, then, an opportunity to discuss controversial issues in a context where participants have real disagreements and positions in which they have some investment” (Zimmerman & Roberston, 2018, p.13).

Debrief the Debate

            Once the debate has concluded, one of the compelling perspectives of using debate is to allow for students to debrief. Debriefing allows each student an opportunity to reflect on the inquiry-based research and presentation of arguments given concerning the topic. This type of cognitive reflection allows students to employ their critical thinking skills to examine their positionality now that they have heard multiple perspectives on the topic.

Duhaylongsod (2017) argues that using debates as a type of instruction gives “students valuable opportunities to practice both listening to different perspectives and sharing their differences in a manner that is civil, which is what we want future citizens to do in public discourse, whether on paper, online, or face to face on a stage” (p. 114). 

Having Students Reach a Conclusion

            After debriefing the debate, the students will have an opportunity to metacognitively reach a conclusion based on the information and oral arguments that were performed during the debate. This portion of the debate is often missed in classrooms but offers a time of crucial reflectivity for students. After finishing all arguments, and after carefully reflecting and evaluating both sides of the issues presented, students now have to reach their own conclusion. Instead of viewing information from personal perspectives, students can reflect on all the information that was presented and argued; thus, leading each individual student in constructing their own personal opinion on the topic.

Beyond the Debate by Informed Action

            After the debate has concluded, classroom teachers might decide to extend beyond the debate with greater relevance by offering students a taking informed action activity as part of the IDM model. “Informed action can take numerous forms (e.g., discussions, debates, presentations) and can occur in a variety of contexts both inside and outside of the classroom” (Grant, Swan, & Lee, 2017, p. 110). Other activities might include becoming a part of a local or community organization, or leading or starting a new community project. This form of social action allows students to become engaged within the community; therefore, using their knowledge from the debate and inquiry into active citizenship. This begins the process of encouraging students to take ownership of a civic challenge, developing the skills to take meaningful action; thus, learning through their practical citizenship (Levinson, 2012).  This part of civic participation has greater meaning as students extend from their classroom environments into community environments.

            For this specific inquiry, we have asked students to construct a letter to their local congressional legislator in support or opposition to developing articles of impeachment regarding President Trump. Our curriculum goal for this inquiry is for students to explain and describe the constitutional requirements of impeachment, comprehend by comparing and contrasting historical outcomes of past presidential impeachments, and evaluate and assess the current impeachment inquiry, while making a decision regarding the recent evidence concerning President Trump.


             For our democratic society to have participatory citizens that are active in researching, evaluating information from multiple viewpoints, and developing their arguments, classrooms must be able to display and engage in a similar form of social discourse. Inquiry along with debate grants classroom teachers an opportunity to model democratic principles by giving students a venue to model democratic ideals through the free exchange of ideas and concepts (Dewey, 1918). In addition to simple argumentation, students must be able to inquire, research, collectively articulate ideas and concepts, and to cognitively reflect in a respectful setting. Students that regularly participate in classroom discussions are more engaged, more likely to vote, follow the news, and be involved in political discussions (Hess & McAvoy, 2015).  According to Vygotsky, the scaffolding of higher-order thinking skills of cognitive development is accomplished through the social interaction of peer learning; such as peer discussion, cooperative learning, and project-based learning (Vygotsky, 1978).

            Our goal for sharing this impeachment inquiry, along with a debate framework, is to present social studies teachers with the resources to develop a meaningful instructional method that can be applied in multiple topics throughout the social studies curriculum. By doing so, students will gain the necessary skills and intellectual growth to continue this process from the classroom to their communities; thus, exploring, searching, and modeling solutions that involve a rich social, but respectful discourse.


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