Teaching the New Course

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Authored by

  • Rebecca Small
    Herndon High School
    Fairfax County, Virginia

The Challenges

The new AP Comparative Government and Politics course began in the fall of 2005, with a new exam scheduled for May 2006. In this article, I explore the challenges of the revised course that we teachers face and decisions we are making as we teach the new curriculum for the first time. I have taught AP Comparative Government and Politics for five years, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the curriculum. Ironically, I have been teaching this long enough to feel proficient and comfortable with the material just as I am being asked to make a change (the changes include a shift to a more conceptual focus and six mandatory country case studies: the UK, Russia, China, Mexico, Nigeria, and Iran; see the summary outline available on AP Central). I, like most teachers, have concerns about the changes. In the past, I used a country-to-country format and have little experience teaching Mexico and Iran.

Country or Concept?

While preparing for the changes, the biggest question I asked myself was, will I continue to use a country-to-country approach, or will I adapt a conceptual approach? There is no correct answer. Each approach offers its own advantages and disadvantages. Most college professors use a conceptual approach, and the new curriculum is modeled on what occurs in the college classroom. If teachers choose the conceptual approach, they will be teaching the way most college instructors teach. Students will leave the course with a better grasp of core concepts, which is what the new curriculum emphasizes. Pacing using this method is likely to be less overwhelming. Teachers can choose core concepts from the course outline and use case-study examples when appropriate. This approach is likely to be more manageable than teaching six countries in a row.

On the other hand, there may also be disadvantages to teaching conceptually. First, it is a more abstract approach, and the high school students that I have taught are not used to this, nor do they do well with it. This is probably because they are not required to learn abstractly as frequently in high school as they will in college. I thought my most gifted students would be able to handle this format, but I worried about the average student with a weak background in government. Each teacher has to judge the ability of students when making the decision of whether to adopt a country-to-country approach or a conceptual one. I also have more practical concerns with the conceptual format. Right now, the conceptual textbooks do not offer the full range of ancillary materials, such as ready-to-use multiple-choice questions on the text. This means that high school teachers who wish to give multiple-choice tests based on a thematic book have to begin from scratch.

Weighing all of this, what did I decide? I would like to make the shift to a conceptual approach some day, but I am not doing so in the 2005-2006 academic year. I decided to implement changes slowly, and I have been staying with the country-to-country approach, emphasizing concepts throughout, as I have always done. I use the same core text with country studies, but I have added a conceptual book that better illustrates comparative concepts, to be used as a supplement. This way I can keep many of my assessments from years before, and the change for me is not so dramatic.

Choosing Textbooks and Approaches

What conceptual and country study textbooks are available and suitable for the new AP Comparative Government course? There are many textbooks that could work for this course. Three types of comparative politics texts are (1) primarily conceptual, (2) primarily country study, and (3) a combination of concepts and country studies. Conceptual texts include Almond and Powell's Comparative Politics Today: A Theoretical Framework and O'Neil's Essentials of Comparative Politics. Both of these texts emphasize core concepts and use a range of countries in support of the core concepts. Texts that are primarily based on country case studies include Hauss's Comparative Politics: Domestic Responses to Global Challenges and Kesselman's Introduction to Comparative Politics: Political Challenges and Changing Agendas. Texts that combine concepts and country studies include Sodaro's Comparative Politics, a Global Introduction and Almond and Powell's Comparative Politics Today: A World View. Each text has strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Almond and Powell texts (both the brief edition and the regular edition) are thorough on concepts but very challenging to read. The O'Neil text is easier to read but may not cover all the concepts teachers will want to cover. The Sodaro text (which combines concepts and countries) has great tables and graphs, but it may go too far in its depth of coverage. The Hauss text is engaging to read but does not have the concepts needed, and Kesselman is the most thorough on countries but lacks an engaging format.

Because the new course emphasizes concepts as well as countries, I recommend that teachers consider adopting either one conceptual text and one country case-study text or one text that combines concepts and countries. As you can see, there is no one perfect text or combination of texts.

Next, teachers ask: how will I pace my course and fit in one additional case study and still finish in time? If you are concerned about pacing, a thematic format may make planning your course easier. You do not need to teach all six countries for each theme; you simply choose relevant contrasting examples. If you have been teaching in a country-to-country format and plan to continue this, you will need to figure out how to squeeze an additional case study into your plans. Have students take home activities that you once did in class, give take-home tests, and cut some in-class review and/or simulated practice tests. Students can present papers to each other in small groups instead of one student at a time to the entire class.

It is surprising how much time you can save by providing lecture notes via email or the Internet. For example, I cut my one week of in-class U.S. review and send the review materials home with students. I am also teaching AP Comparative Government and Politics in the fall instead of during the spring, so that I am teaching the new course when both I and my students are fresh. This way I can save my pacing anxieties for when I am teaching the U.S. course in the spring.

Reviewing for the Exam

What about the review for the AP Comparative Government Exam in the spring? I plan to ask my students to create several tangibles that will be useful for review in the spring, but I will still minimize class time for review in order to spend adequate class time on the material. I have students work in teams to create country study Web sites. Each Web site includes definitions of key terms, a brief chapter outline, summaries of major current events, links to useful Web sites on the country, and so on. These country Web sites are presented to the class and then hosted on the school's Web site. This way each student can access them from home when they are reviewing for my final exam and for the AP Exam. In addition, I have each student maintain a writing folder in the classroom that can be used later for review. The folders contain all free-response questions answered by the students during the year and the rubric used to score the answers. At the end of the course, students are asked to pull out these essays for review.

Comparative Government Briefing Papers

Many teachers have anxieties about whether or not their current textbook will be sufficient for the new course. Some were not able to select new textbooks in time for the 2005-2006 exam administration. If this is the case for you, do not be discouraged. The free resources on AP Central provide material that can sufficiently supplement any text. You can download, print, and copy the briefing papers on Iran, Mexico, and Nigeria for your students. These papers can act as "chapters" in a text; they are thorough and engaging in presentation.

I strongly recommend that all teachers thoroughly read the briefing papers on AP Central and create new tests that involve the different types of assessments that will appear (multiple-choice, definitions/descriptions, conceptual analysis free-response, and country context free-response). I also recommend reading articles that appear in the Economist about the six countries in the curriculum. Finally, if you would like to gather videos, I suggest investing in TiVo or making friends with someone who has one. In fall 2004 I asked my colleague to put "Iran" into the search engine of his TiVo. Six weeks later, he had recorded five programs on Iran, including programs recommended by Mehrzad Boroujerdi, author of the briefing paper on Iran. I did the same with the other countries on the curriculum. The Teachers' Resources area on AP Central provides reviews of a variety of resources suitable for the "new course." For example, I entered "Mexico" into the search engine and found a dozen interesting resources about the country, some of which I saved for summer reading.

Core Concepts and Questions

I think it is important to remember that when we talk about a "new" course, it is not really an entirely new course. Iran is new, Mexico and Nigeria as mandatory countries are new, but much of the course remains the same. Most of the core concepts on the "old" outline are on the new outline as well. Also, many of the multiple-choice questions on the Released Exams (1994 and 1999 are released and can be purchased in the College Board Store) are still relevant to the new course. If you haven't already done so, look at these Released Exams and taking note of which questions appear to still work and which questions do not (questions on France can be easily eliminated). You will find that a majority of the questions on the multiple-choice part of the exam can still be used with your students as practice questions. The same can be said of the free-response questions from Released Exams. Most of your lesson plans will also still work, even if you shifted to a conceptual format. For example, I have a lesson that I enjoy using when teaching Russia in which students debate the merit of the recent reforms made by President Vladimir Putin. In a conceptual format, I can use this lesson when teaching the concept of federalism, since many of the changes he has made have altered the nature of federalism in Russia.

Many teachers had anxieties about both the need for a master list of concepts and the new concepts that must be covered. While there is no master list, teachers can and should make their own lists. At the start of the course and during the semester, I have been building a list of concepts that I want my students to know. In the process, I've used several conceptual texts and the AP Central material for AP Comparative Government teachers. My students have been keeping a notebook in which they define these concepts and use country-based illustrative examples of the concepts. Examples of new concepts include illiberal democracy and civil society. Both of these are discussed in articles on the AP Comparative Government and Politics Course Home Page on AP Central. Illiberal democracy (the idea of a country that has some democratic features but lacks others) is best applied in class to Russia, and civil society (the ability of citizens to organize) can be used to make interesting comparisons between different types of regimes.

I do not believe the new curriculum is more difficult than the old one. Once teachers and students have some experience with the new curriculum, they may find it easier. The increased emphasis on concepts is bound to make the multiple-choice questions less difficult for students. Multiple-choice questions on political culture and legitimacy always seem less intimidating for my students than questions about country-specific details, such as the rules of the British parliament.

Without question, the new course presents many challenges. Upon careful reflection, teachers can meet these challenges and are bound to find them more manageable as years pass. Students and teachers will enjoy the new curriculum and will be well served by a course that is not only reflective of comparative politics courses at the college level but also dynamic and interesting.


Almond, Gabriel A., and G. Bingham Powell. Comparative Politics: A Theoretical Framework, 4th ed. Longman: New York, 2003.

Almond, Gabriel A., and G. Bingham Powell. Comparative Politics Today: A World View, 8th ed. Longman: New York, 2003.

Hauss, Charles. Comparative Politics: Domestic Responses to Global Challenges, 4th ed. Wadsworth: Belmont, California, 2002.

Kesselman, Mark. Introduction to Comparative Politics, 3rd ed. Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2004.

O'Neil, Patrick H. Essentials of Comparative Politics. W. W. Norton: New York, 2003.

Sodaro, Michael J. Comparative Politics: A Global Introduction. McGraw-Hill: New York, 2004.

Rebecca Small teaches both AP Comparative and United States Government and Politics at Herndon High School in Fairfax County, Virginia. In addition to teaching AP Government and Politics, she places students as interns on Capitol Hill. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and received the Fairfax County Teacher of the Gifted Award. Rebecca is actively involved in the Advanced Placement Program, including being an AP Government and Politics Reader and Question Leader. She was a member of the AP Government and Politics Development Committee and teaches AP Government summer institutes every year.