[Originally published on the Teaching in Lingit Aani blog, reposted with permission.]
I haven’t read any studies on the structure of high school world history classes, but based on my limited experience, I would guess that most world history courses are chronological in nature.
That is to say, classes might begin at the dawn of humanity, or with ancient civilizations, or with the Renaissance, but afterward the rest of the course progresses topic by topic by getting closer to the present.
I want to build a world history class not around chronology, but around themes linked to the present. For example, one unit could be based around the question “why do the world’s countries have the government systems they have today?” This would lead back to lessons based on a chronology of government systems around the world—which forms of politics fell and which gained dominance leading up to now.
Other themes could be patriarchy (gender norms), economic systems, and religious beliefs. There shouldn’t need to be a large number of themes, since each theme would include many mini-units of history from different places and times.
Here’s what part of a more detailed course plan might look like:
Unit 1: Geography and Demographics
Guiding question: Why are people distributed around the world the way they are today?
Topics of in-depth study: why agriculture and pastoralism began in the places they did; the demographic success of agricultural civilization in India and China; pre-modern aides to population growth; the Great Dying and the Columbian Exchange; the population explosions of the modern era
Unit 2: Systems of Government
Guiding question: Why do people live under the forms of government they do today?
Topics of in-depth study: ancient Asian empires, Greek city-states, the Roman Republic, feudal and monarchic Europe, parliamentary Britain, American republics, communist states
Unit 3: Economic Systems
Guiding questions: Why do people live within the economic systems they do today? Why are resources distributed around the world the way they are today?
Unit 4: Religious Beliefs
Guiding question: Why do people believe in the religions they do today?
Unit 5: Patriarchy
Guiding question: How do sex and gender relate to cultural norms and power in the past and present?
Each of the above themes might go all the way back to the Neolithic Revolution, (10,000 years ago), but if I wanted to address knowledge of humans and human-like species before the Neolithic Revolution, the course’s first unit could focus on the scientific discovery of evolution and human ancestors:
Unit 0: Hominids and Early Humans
Guiding question: How do we know what we know about other hominid species and early humans?
The unit would begin with Darwin, then advance through modern biological and archaeological discoveries, and then address the knowledge of early hominids and early humanity after learning about how the evidence was gathered for that knowledge. It’s far superior to find out how knowledge was discovered than to simply learn the knowledge from a textbook and choose to accept or ignore it.
In this way, I hope that a thematic, non-chronological world history course would make history more relevant for students. Every unit would have a precise, tangible, comprehensible purpose—understanding some aspect of our present-day reality.
I’m sure I’m not the first to think of this idea, of course, but I’d like to try it out on my own, perhaps as soon as next year. Let me know what you think!