Two Ways of Teaching History

Mar 31, 2021

History teachers face a perennial challenge: how to cover an increasing amount of content in a finite amount of time. Every year, there’s a little bit more history to add, but there are never more school days to cover it.

The Traditional Approach: Chronological

Traditionally, history is taught chronologically. Students are marched through the past, decade by decade, century by century.

Teaching history this way has its advantages:

  • Presenting information chronologically is a familiar organizational pattern.
  • It creates an easy-to-follow sequence.
  • Chronological presentation can also help students see and identify cause and effect. For example, the United States did not effectively deal with the issue of slavery in 1820 or 1850, and that led to the Civil War in 1861.

This method also has its challenges, not the least of which is figuring out how to add more present-day and diverse content to an already-long laundry list of standards. Chronological instruction also makes it difficult for students make connections across time. By the time they get to the civil rights movement, for example, they may have forgotten what they learned about Reconstruction, especially if that content was taught in an earlier grade. And in some schools, teachers may start over at the beginning every year and not have time to present more recent history.

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A Newer Approach: Thematic

In an effort to help students find more meaning in their history studies, a small but growing number of educators are choosing to teach history not chronologically but thematically or conceptually. Instead of units organized by decade or century, these teachers organize units around big ideas, such as migration, innovation, conflict, and leadership. A unit about migration might compare and contrast the forced migration of Africans and the voluntary migration of Europeans during the colonial era and ask students to make connections between the experiences of immigrants in the 1800s with the experiences of immigrants today.

In this way, students can develop and use their critical thinking skills. Teachers using this approach have found that their students’ performance on standardized tests did not suffer and in some cases actually improved.

But this method presents its own challenges:

  • State curriculum standards and history textbooks are all organized chronologically.
  • Teaching conceptually places a burden on the teacher to create curriculum almost from scratch.
  • It can also make it difficult for students to sequence events, especially if the teacher does not provide a chronological review or create a classroom timeline for students to reference.

What Will the Future Bring?

The debate among teachers about the merits of each approach can be lively, and the two approaches are by no means exclusive. Some teachers are finding ways to combine the two. With time, scholarly research may provide a deciding vote.

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