History curriculum is constantly growing. While other disciplines likewise grow, the struggles of content expansion in history seems particularly challenging in the context of the secondary classroom. Consider the AP US History course. Since the APUSH program began in the 1950s the United States has experienced over six decades of development. This comprises nearly two units of study, according to the current curriculum documents, representing nearly 20% of the course content.1 The last sixty years is also some of the most important content for understanding the current state of the United States. Has the length of the school year, or classroom instructional time, grown by a similar percentage?
If anything, instructional time for normal curriculum has shrunk over the decades due to a variety of factors like standardized testing, state or local requirements for special lessons programs, or any of the unexpected events and disruptions that frequently occur at schools to take students out of class. During one year of teaching in Florida public schools, I remember losing at least 8 classes to PSAT testing, SAT testing, state end-of-course exam practice, counseling assemblies, the talent show, and similar events. Sometimes academic initiatives are incredibly valuable, for example, twelve states now require Holocaust education at some point in the school year.2 The flexibility around timing makes it easier for this example to be included at appropriate moments. Other legislative initiatives, such as Constitution Day lessons, can feel forced and awkward when it comes while a high school history class is in the middle of a unit on the medieval era. There can be value in all of it, but there is not always time. What are teachers to do?
Difficult decisions have to be made; and none of them are perfect. Old school “world civ” teachers don’t want to give up teaching ancient Greece or Rome, teachers interested in being less Eurocentric will likely emphasize African or Asian revolutions and responses to imperialism instead of the traditional Atlantic World revolutions, and teachers struggling with new courses will just rely on whatever the textbook presents or what resources are most engaging or most readily available. Teacher voice in their courses is important. But content cannot be the end-all, be-all of a course; it is counterproductive and sends the wrong message.
Christopher Husbands writes that our “knowledge and understanding of the past will always be partial and incomplete” because of the passing of time, the differences in how people of the past behaved, evidence lost over time, and insights into life and history that were never recorded.3 However, If all teachers do is instruct mountains of content the traditional way, they risk presenting history as an amalgamation of facts that is unquestionable, thereby undermining what the discipline of history is really about. We can be more creative with how we present content, how we select it, and how we include both students and teachers in that process in a meaningful way.
A former colleague of mine always used the term “courageous deletion” to describe the content that gets cut from the curriculum for whatever reason. I like the term. Making a courageous deletion is a difficult and painful process, especially if it’s content I love. But It’s also a necessity; I can’t teach everything. Likewise, if I want student’s to take an active role in investigating the past, I have to give up some control over their direction. (within established boundaries of course)
The way to go about making these decisions can be a source of much consternation since historical content is so rich and diverse and since history teachers are cut from so many molds. I have found that conversations over content are easier and more productive when teachers can find common agreements, core beliefs, or approaches that guide selection and curriculum development.
Despite the fact that many curricula advertise that they instruct skills, many standardized tests for history still predominantly assess content knowledge. Content standards, engaging simulations and activities, and the efforts of great teachers to instruct prioritized content is not always enough to get students to the benchmark as defined by many state legislatures. Data from sources such as the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) or individual state assessment reports tell this story in greater detail.
Sam Wineburg, in his book “Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts” makes a detailed argument around why this has been the case for the last century.4 Focusing on content, especially all the content, is not the right strategy for leveraging student time and effort in the classroom. These issues are often brought into public debate near the end of academic years as government officials and the public seek to analyze the meaning of scaled testing results. An article from the Washington Post from April of 2020 is just one of the more recent examples of this.5
A skills-based approach does not mean content is selected randomly as if throwing darts at the wall; neither does it mean the content is watered down, simplified, or rushed through. It does mean content is carefully selected and curated to support students in acquiring historical thinking skills that encourage critical thinking and have applicability outside the classroom. There is a lot of content to choose from, and selecting it is easier when we can clearly define student outcomes and transfer goals.
One of the things about the AP history curriculum that I like is the focus on Key Concepts and Historical Developments.6 These do a good job of framing the big picture that students should understand in order to make sense of the details. Once these are agreed upon in a curriculum it can be easier to select the illustrative examples. With so much content to choose from this can also open up some great possibilities for student agency and inquiry. Teachers can also use this as an opportunity for their own voice about what is important in the past while staying true to the core of the curriculum. If they explain this selection process to their students they are genuinely modeling the same thinking we want our students to engage in after they graduate.
I think the thematic approach is the most challenging way of imposing an overarching framework on content selection, though it can also be the most rewarding. The themes that are chosen provide the limits and boundaries of historical inquiry and help students see large patterns and trends that can otherwise be hidden within the chronological narrative. Likewise it establishes guiding boundaries for teacher planning and a framework for content prioritization.
In a previous post I explained in detail what I think the advantages are to a thematic approach. For this post, I will just say that it is one of the more creative and engaging ways teachers can systematize content selection and courageous deletions.
I want students to leave my class with an appreciation and interest in history and a proficiency in historical thinking. This will give them more pleasure and future use out of my lessons than a mind chock-full of facts and information waiting to be forgotten. Content is interesting, intriguing, and fun; it is what draws so many of us to history, but it’s not the ultimate purpose of historical inquiry. If we make content acquisition the ultimate purpose, we will likely lose to google.
Without clear strategies a history class can easily lose students in a maelstrom of content. Students need safe havens and moorings to help them organize, contextualize, and connect content. They need rudders, sails, and riggings; the tools that are gained through mastery of historical thinking to steer their way through the hurricane of facts that textbooks, lectures, and contemporary events hurl at them. Although my analogy may seem a touch melodramatic, the survival of functioning democracy depends on robust social studies education. (That sounds even more melodramatic). Even brilliant STEM majors can benefit from some historical empathy. It brings with it the unique paradox of pride in human achievement and possibility tempered by the humility of past failures.
If in this process of instructing loftier goals one student misses out on ancient Greece, one the French Revolution, and another the significance of the diffusion of Champa rice…they will all be just fine. Courageous deletions are not courageous because of the difficulty of the choice to give something up, they are courageous because of what they embody about the vision for redefining history education to offer something of immensely greater value to both student and society.
- Marshall, Lindsay. “The Strange World of AP US History.” Contingent Magazine. October 20, 2020. Link
- Povich, Elaine. “As Hate Incidents Rise, States Require Teaching the Holocaust.” Stateline by Pew Trust. July 15, 2019. Link
- Husbands, Christopher. (1996) What is history teaching?: language, ideas, and meaning in learning about the past. Open University Press.
- Wineburg, S. (2001). Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Critical Perspectives on The Past). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
- Strauss, Valerie. “Why history is hard – and dangerous – to teach and how to get kids to stop thinking it is ‘boring and useless'” The Washington Post. April 27th, 2020.
- The AP World History Modern CED can be found on their website.