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Redesigning a Thematic World History Curriculum

I have loved history ever since I was a kid.

I just want to be clear that my goal is not to make my students fall in love with history. As I matured, I’ve realized that everybody has different interests, strengths and weaknesses. Rather my purpose is to help students understand the importance of history.

This is an repost from a guest post I wrote for The Civic Educator a while back. The original post can be found here.

That is something everyone has to understand. History is meaningful for all of us. It shapes our identity – past, present, and future. It fosters a shared sense of identity, which serves as a foundation for our community. This seems to be sorely lacking in society today. People have become so isolated and fragmented that they’ve lost their connection with society. It’s little wonder that political participation in this country is so low.

History Can’t Just Be About Facts

In my experience, if you teach history chronologically you’re going to have a hard time connecting with students. This turns the entire subject into a matter of “memorizing names, dates, and facts of dead people.”

One of my fellow teachers told about his district’s benchmark exam for U.S. History. Every year it asks, “Who is the inventor of the cotton gin?” Eli Whitney. I’ve seen other teachers ask students to match the inventors with their inventions on a test.

What’s the point? High school me would totally question, “Why do I have to know this random fact?”

And so my teaching philosophy has evolved to address two simple questions:

  • Why do I have to learn this?

  • How has this affected my life and the world and society in which I live today?

​My purpose in the classroom is getting students to realize that regardless of whatever career one may have, we are all part of one greater community and society. What I love about the social sciences is that they can be the glue that bonds us together.

Let’s apply these two questions to our scenarios above. Asking who invented the cotton gin and matching inventors with inventions fail the test on both questions.

Perhaps having students know the inventors is important from that particular teacher’s perspective. But this doesn’t come across in the assessment. There are an endless amount of facts out there. Is it possible to teach everything?

And to complicate matters even further, do we even know everything? There are certainly gaps in the knowledge provided by the textbook, and each of us is the unique product of schooling that has no doubt left some gaps in our knowledge as well.

​The Downsides with a Chronological History Curriculum

I teach world history, and the curriculum and standards are arranged in chronological order. Typically, a teacher dutifully marches through all of this content, inevitably getting to and pushing through a unit they find to be dull and meaningless.

The unit I dislike the most is about the French Revolution. In my classroom, I’m lucky if I have one student who is of French descent. The rest of my students are no doubt thinking, “Why are we learning about French history?” Some of my seniors asked me straight up yesterday – “Why is World History just about Europe and the West?”

Why don’t we teach Latin American Revolutions? More than half of my students are Hispanic, but the Revolutions in Latin America don’t appear in our content standards. Let’s face it – our World History curriculum is Eurocentric. World History is really Western Civilizations.

The fact that my students of color picked up on it should be a huge red flag. This is a perfect example of policy and regulation having a negative impact on my students’ education.

Another problem with this traditional structure is that there is an overwhelming amount of pressure to teach as much content as possible. As a result, we can easily forget to make connections between the past and the present.

Looking at back through my own history of schooling, a fair share of my history teachers were so focused on getting the content across that there was not much time taken to connect those past events with the present and think about how they shaped our world today. I remember in A.P. U.S. History, our class stopped at the Cold War.

We can’t teach everything. It’s futile. So we shouldn’t try.

Rethinking History Education and Organizing Around Themes

We need to rethink how we teach history.

This is where a thematic curriculum comes in. I decided to embark on an experiment this year, and it’s exciting. I’m literally building the curriculum as I go, re-organizing everything around a set of themes. Teaching it chronologically would have been easier, but it’s much harder to sell it my students. This is way better.

This is a fairly standard breakdown of units in a traditional World History course:

  • The Enlightenment

  • French Revolution

  • Industrial Revolution

  • Imperialism

  • World War I

  • Totalitarianism (Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler)

  • World War

  • Cold War

  • Contemporary Times (if time permits)

In my new thematic world history curriculum, this outline looks like this:

  • Democracy & Governance

  • Revolution

  • Progress

  • Clash of Ideas

  • Power & Awareness

  • Race & Culture

  • Conflict & Peace

  • Collective/Social Responsibility

I did preface the year with a quick chronological rundown of the last 3-400 years of history to give my students a bit of a sense of time.

Each thematic unit derives content from at least 2-3 of the traditional chronological units. Each unit is tied to several guiding and essential questions.

For example, my Revolution unit will explore the causes and consequences of political revolutions. Why do we have revolutions? What are the causes? How do we have “effective” revolutions?

Within this unit, students will focus solely on the idea of revolution. I am still covering content standards with this method of approach. Students will be studying a variety of revolutions: American Revolution, French Revolution, Latin American Revolutions, Russian Revolution, Cold War, and Arab Spring. They will analyze the various revolutions, draw comparisons from them, and eventually apply it all back to the question – how do we have “effective” revolutions?

Project Based Learning with a Thematic Curriculum

I find a thematic approach easier to apply project-based learning (PBL).

Currently, my students have created countries in their respective classes using Each week they are given new issues to discuss and solve together. As they answer more, the status and classification of their nation change. The idea is to eventually introduce scenarios into the class and resolve it, similar to Model UN.

How can they work together? How can they improve society? How can they do so effectively? This throws the content back at their lives. Instead of asking, “what are the causes of the French Revolution?” The question expands it to all revolutions, even the ones happening in our lives today.

Why Use a Thematic Curriculum?

I was a marketer before I became a teacher. In that lifetime, I came across the idea of “storyscaping.”

When you sell a brand or a product to a customer, the goal is not to make the customer a part of your brand or product. It is the other way around. You make your brand/product a part of your customer’s story.

There is no better storyteller than the main character themselves. Let’s put it this way. Most people like to talk about themselves. People are more passionate when it comes to talking about themselves. When you tell someone else’s story, you’re most likely not as enthusiastic about it than when telling your own experience.

This idea of storyscaping stuck with me as I became an educator. It is definitely applicable in the classroom. We, as educators, are the company; our product is our content/curriculum. How do we “sell” it to our “customers,” our students? We have to package and brand our curriculum in a way that it appeals and eventually becomes a part of our students’ lives. A thematic approach does this so much better than a chronological approach.

So How Is This All Working Out?

Let’s get back to the whole scenario of having to match the inventors to their inventions. I am not going to downplay its importance. If it is packaged the right way to sell it to students, it can be effective. But I personally choose to emphasize the effects these inventions have on our society than attaching names to inventions. I see it as an easier sell to students and for them to connect the past to the present and future.

So far, in the classroom, the students are enjoying it. Many have said history is their favorite class this year and some said it’s the class they are looking most forward to every week. That’s strange? Isn’t it? Isn’t it usually the class people generally say is the most boring? Packaging matters.

Thematic teaching has been done before and I am just starting out on my own so I can create ownership to my own curriculum. This is my first year doing it and I am creating it as I go. There are still many areas to tweak. Backwards course mapping my entire curriculum next summer is something I am looking forward to doing. to better refine it.

I am definitely open to feedback, questions, and concerns!

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