Curriculum History

Hashtags and grain size

Early last week three of my summer’s hashtags intersected on a concept that I find very useful in World History pedagogy: granularity. As I was finalizing my presentation for #MNHistoryFest (3rd annual, always epic), I noticed that the benchmark for the “New” Imperialism in the Minnesota state standards is in the eleventh standard of World History and the twentieth standard of US History, despite the World History standards starting 200,000 years earlier than the US History standards.  Meanwhile the night before History Fest  included #SSChat on Revitalizing Survey Courses. This stimulating conversation reminded me of the need to embrace big ideas in history to avoid getting bogged down in details. Finally, all summer the movement to #SaveAPWorld emphasized how @AP_Trevor fundamentally mischaracterizes the content load of World History by ignoring the larger grain size of the course’s content as compared European and US History. With the new school year nearly upon me, it is time to consider implications of granularity in the teaching of World History.

In part, my interest in granularity stems from comparing pedagogy in US and World Histories, as someone whose primary teaching load was once US, but is now World History. The difference between the disciplines should be obvious to anyone familiar with the AP Histories (including the Senior VP who oversees them). AP World History, which currently begins approximately 10,000 years BP, obviously covers a lot more time and space than AP US History, which begins less than  600 years ago. But APWH has fewer Key Concepts (see Section IV, p. 34; compared to APUSH, Section III, p. 19). Similarly, in the Minnesota state standards there are 25% more benchmarks for US History than for World History. As Save AP World argues “the mission of a world history teacher is … to illuminate the trends and patterns that drive human history.” These trends and patterns are the big ideas, the Key Concepts around which a World History class. This may be the fundamental error in @AP_Trevor’s thinking: cutting years from a history curriculum does not necessarily cut a proportional amount of content. It is akin to the confusion generated by electoral maps of a Presidential election: land area does not correlate with human population size.  Some years hold more details that teachers will feel compelled to cover.

The College Board’s assertion that many APWH teachers feel overwhelmed by the content is certainly correct. Considering the grain size of information is a key to resolving this issue while focusing on critical thinking and educational equity, however. Much of the pressure that history teachers feel to cover too many concepts is self-imposed, and we can lift it from ourselves without amputating thousands of years of history.

Granularity particularly makes a difference when World History teachers consider the historical context of our own history educations. The grain size of information is larger in World History as compared to US History or to the Western Civilization classes (even if named “World History”) that most of us had as students. When teachers try to add the “rest of the World” to the Western historical narrative that we were taught, we quickly run out of time.  For instance, I have taught students about World War One for each of the past twenty-eight school years, but it is only over the past five that I have developed lessons on the global nature of the war. Globalizing my approach has meant that I have “dared to omit” some of the details of the outbreak and the conduct of the war in Europe, while continuing to emphasize nation-state rivalries and the horrors of mechanized combat. This is the type of curricular work that the College Board shirked by simply amputating history from before c. 1200 CE.

Without considering grain size I fear that many teachers will respond to the increased time for the modern in APWH by loading more details from Western political history into box cars traveling through the “European tunnel of time.”  Without professional development on the importance of themes and a global view, excising pre-modern history may just lead to more time spent on details like the various Henrys of Anglo-French History or the blow-by-blow accounts of the Risorgiemento and German “Unification” through which I once drug AP European History students. The danger is that even though World History since c. 1200 CE should not and need not be taught as Eurocentric, legacy practices mean that it often will be, absent interventions. By telling teachers that they were right to complain about too much, the CB fails to use their position to encourage a more thematic, global class.

Furthermore, some of the self-applied pressure to cover too much content results from pedagogy. Teachers who try to narrate all of the material in the APWH Key Concepts or in state World History standards quickly run out of time. The issue isn’t just classroom time. Narrating the events of the past for students requires at least some mastery of many different narratives. No teacher leaves undergrad thinking they have this, and few feel like they gain it. Again, this pedagogic choice perpetuates Eurocentric narratives, because that is what most teachers know. Each year that I’ve taught APWH I’ve moved closer to emphasizing the key concepts,three or four per unit, in presentations once a week and reminding students to look for examples in their reading, discussions, and mini-projects. I’m writing this, in part, to remind myself to continue this development. Daring to omit means recognizing that students might understand a key concept through many different examples, none of which are critical. As hosts Matt Drwenski and Dave Eaton discussed with. Rick Warner discussed during an episode of On Top of the World earlier this summer history teachers are both helicopter pilots and truffle hunters.

Photograph of a black truffle, round and bumby.
A delicious-looking black truffle, via Wikipedia.

We can’t spend all of our time in the helicopter. But, we also need to relieve ourselves of the pressure to hunt every truffle, no matter how delicious., We also need to make sure that we aren’t hunting all of our truffles from the same forests.

In addition to emphasizing large ideas, history teachers need to find the courage to abandon “coverage.” History teachers often feel the need to teach all of the examples of a development, instead of providing students with choice over the examples that they use and the responsibility to connect these examples to the big ideas.

Even though Minnesota World History teachers are tasked with fewer benchmarks than US History teachers, at more than forty there are still too many.  Teaching World History has forced me to foreground big ideas and to make choices, and teachers can and should apply this lesson to US History, too.

As we begin the school year and consider consider how we can revitalize our history courses, we should listen to historian David Perry in his article “Can We Save AP History?”:

Let’s stop emphasizing the need to “cover” the past, meaning building courses around specific historical dates and events, and instead build a curriculum that centers the real work of history: asking questions, marshaling evidence, making arguments, and learning how to learn.

The large-grained key concepts or big ideas of history course provide the framework for this historical inquiry. We will never find the space to do this important work and to create curricula in which all of our students see themselves, if we remain committed to all of the details to familiar narratives.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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