Home Culture Business & Education A Non-Chronological World History Course

A Non-Chronological World History Course


[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 Timelinewould 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:

World population density today
World population density today

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?

World religions today
World religions 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!


  1. I like the idea, but the way you have it laid out it seems like a “Social Studies” class and not a “History” class. You have incorporated ideas from Human Geography, Anthropology, Sociology, Economics, and maybe even a little bit of Archaeology. I think the guiding question for unit 4 is a bit vague and would be difficult to find unbiased source material for. Maybe you were thinking of talking about where in space and time the major religions first appeared and then examine their spread around the globe?

    • Yes, that’s correct, Eric. The class would look at religions as historical, social phenomena, not anything else, so they’d all be traced back to their particular origins in space and time. I also think it would be particularly important to examine some of the many belief systems have been and continue to be pushed out by the “world religions.”

      It’s interesting that you say it seems like more of a social studies class. Some of the themes could definitely be tilted that way, but since the whole idea is to look at a thematic situation in the present and then turn back in time for all the answers, I think it would all be very much framed by history.

  2. I really like the idea of this. I think from a learning perspective this is an improvement over chronological history as each event now how a context to trigger similar events throughout history; I would imagine this would lead to better retention. Fascinating idea

  3. I’ve done this before. I am an English teacher and teamed with a social studies teacher for American literature. We used Socratic seminar and taught both courses using seminar pieces and novels, not textbooks.