What Is Government?

9, 10, 11, 12

Learners will describe the role of government at all levels and identify whether or not needs are being met by the government or in some other way.

Lesson Rating 
PrintOne Fifty-Minute Class Period
  • The learner will:
  • describe the purposes of government.
  • differentiate between a dictatorship and democracy.
  • identify two kinds of democracy.
  • define the relationship between the levels of government in the United States.
  • list services provided by each level of government.
  • describe needs in society that are not being met by government.
  • explain how needs not addressed by government are met.
  • Levels of Government Ladder (Handout One)
  • Foam ball/tennis ball/other small object
Home Connection 

For homework, have students bring in one example of government at work which was not mentioned in class.

  • Hartley, William H. and William S. Vincent. American Civics. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc., 1996.
  • Saffell, David C. Civics: Responsibilities and Citizenship. NewYork: Glencoe/ McGraw-Hill, 1998.


  1. Anticipatory Set: Write the following words on the blackboard: "create a government." The teacher will proceed to sit at his/her desk and give no further instructions. If students inquire, repeat what is written on the board. Give students ten minutes. They will become frustrated.

  2. After a short time has passed, ask students about the governments they have created. Explain to the learners that they were given a chance to create a government. They will learn what a government is and be given another opportunity, with direction, to create one.

  3. Define government (the authority or power ruling on behalf of a people). Ask for examples of governments (school board, city council, township board of supervisors, federal government, your classroom).

  4. Discuss the two predominant government styles: dictatorship (government by one or a small group with rule by force as the norm) and democracy (rule by the citizens of a nation). Ask students for examples of each style (dictatorship: Iraq, Cuba, former Soviet Union, Hitler's Germany; and democracy: United States, Germany, Lithuania, Russia).

  5. Ask students to provide examples of what life might be like living under a dictatorship. Discuss the differences between representative democracy (citizens elect officials to represent them in government; also called a republic) and direct democracy (voters in a community meet in one place to make laws and decide actions). Ask the class to identify what type of democracy exists in the United States.

  6. Introduce the three levels of government (national, state and local) and discuss each. Teacher Note: I explain the levels with the concept of a ladder using Levels of Government Ladder (Handout One). The national level, framed by the Constitution, is the top rung of the ladder. The state and local levels are on the next two rungs. The ladder illustrates the idea that each level cannot pass laws that conflict with the decisions/laws of the level above, but can pass laws conflicting with the decisions/laws below. For instance, if Michigan passes a law making abortion illegal, the Michigan law would violate the decision of the Supreme Court in the Roe v. Wade case, which falls within the domain of the national government, or the rung of the ladder above the state rung of the ladder.

  7. On the board or a large sheet of paper, have students list problems/issues/needs faced by individuals and society. (The list can include anything from cancer or job loss to homelessness or racism.) Encourage students to list at least twenty items. Once the list is complete, have students look at each issue/problem/need and decide if it is addressed by one of the levels of government. If it is, how is it handled? Write a capital letter "G" by those issues addressed by government. Keep the list on the board for the next day's lesson or copy it on to a sheet of paper.

  8. Ask the learners how the other needs/problems/issues are being addressed if not by the government. End the class with this question. Let the students give answers or ponder the answer, but allow them to leave without teacher confirmation as to what the correct answer is.


Toss a koosh ball, tennis ball, stuffed animal or other small object to a student. Ask the student to list one vocabulary word discussed in class. That student will carefully toss the object to another student in class who will provide the definition of that word. The second student will then toss the object to a third student who will then provide another vocabulary word. Have the game continue until the learners have reviewed the major concepts.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 02. Roles of Government, Business, and Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Explain why needs are met in different ways by government, business, civil society and family.
  2. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 07. Skills of Civic Engagement
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Discuss a public policy issue affecting the common good and demonstrate respect and courtesy for differing opinions.