World History Makeover: World History Syllabi
Deborah Smith Johnston,
This is a regular column that takes European
history and western civ lessons and suggests world historical approaches.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive review of the literature, or of
possible lessons, but a means for teachers new to global approaches to see
beyond the box. Readers are encouraged to send in additional suggestions
for adaptations they have tried in their own classrooms. Readers are additionally
urged to submit topics that they need revamped for their own world history
A course syllabus defines the course you teach.1
Your personality, organizational ability, commitment to recent history,
instructional preferences and assessment priorities are laid out within
it. For those reasons, the process of writing a syllabus matters.2
Traditionally, most world history syllabi have been generated based on the
chapters of a textbook or an authorized set of standards. The result is
that students get a curriculum of chapter after chapter, fact after fact.
They do not usually gain from this an appreciation for the interconnectedness
of each chapter, each region, and each time. I remember an anecdote from
one of the first workshops I led on the new Massachusetts Social Studies
frameworks.3 One of the department chairs at the workshop was very
proud of his efforts to align his curriculum by taking each framework strand
in order and teaching that content for a week. This may have been a successful
approach if the framework had been more than a laundry list of unrelated
topics strung together with no overarching themes and minimal global representation.
Such a syllabus is likely to seem fragmented to students, since there is
no attempt to create an overarching framework to aid learning. Without understanding
the connections between the parts, students will not see the patterns, the
narratives, or the sense of history.
Choosing an overarching theme for the year that
you and your students can connect with will help with both selection and
motivation. For my sample syllabi, I chose to focus on Community and Conflict
as the overarching theme. Secondary themes should be chosen which are active,
embody an historical argument, require interdisciplinary approaches or sources,
and are global enough to be representative of more than one place (for example,
Searching for Justice and Power).4 By making the curriculum thematically rather than regionally
based, no single place is privileged, units of analysis are selected based
on their application to global processes, and there are opportunities for
students to reflect on periodization. Periodization is the next consideration
in order to make the thematic units coherent, teachable chunks where students
get a sense of chronology and sequence. Be aware of the assumptions that
come with periodization as you determine whether or not to build the course
around 1500 or to use specific dates (for example, 1789, 1898, 1914). Only
the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution were really global
turning points, but the themes should help determine logical break points
for the units. Clearly stating your objectives and assumptions will help
to initiate the discourse on periodization that must be part of the course.
|Pacing plays a role here. In any survey course, it is essential that pacing be decided prior to the beginning of the year. The standard practice of students never getting past World War II is not acceptable, and will not happen if you pace the class carefully. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances like school cancellations, assemblies, fire drills, and teachable moments. However, by building in some extra time for each unit, the effect of unexpected interruptions to instruction time can be minimized. Teachers need to decide how long each unit will be based upon the number of school days, weeks, and/or quarters. To ease grading at the end of term, the end of a marking period does not need to be used as the end of a unit. Vacation breaks can be used as opportunities to move onto new units. Transition units (such as railroads, coffeehouses, utopias…) can be considered for instances when there are only a few days before a long break. For example, a unit on coffeehouses works nicely as a transition unit between the “intellectual exchange” (the Enlightenment) and revolutions. In designing my own unit on coffeehouses, I wanted students to be able to extend backward and think about the discovery of coffee in Ethiopia, the impact it had through coffeehouses on Islamic law, family structure, and society and then move with coffee through Europe, looking at the similar role in played in England and elsewhere in fermenting political change and, in France, revolution.||4|
There are inevitable tensions in pacing a course
of this scope. How much depth should there be on any given topic? Should
you allow for the spontaneity of a class and respond to current events in
depth or extend topics students have taken an interest in? The hope is that
some balance can be found as you design the course to allow for occasional
forays into the past and present. These types of extensions are valuable
checkpoints for student understanding and their ability to navigate through
time and scale. One of the advantages of using themes is in fact that more
connections can be found so lessons can be built in that look at those intersections
with news events or other historical happenings. It is hard to spend any
one day on a topic and then move on the next day to a new topic. By trying
to merge a set of joint topics over the course of week, connected to the
overarching theme(s), the course feels less fragmented. Pacing will help
ensure that students have the benefit of a balanced approach to the survey
where they do not feel like they have been on a treadmill all year. They
need to see the coherence of the entire course as they reach the culminating
Within each period, I brainstorm the topics of importance
and then consider case studies to help convey those topics. The difficulty
here is not necessarily to choose places as topics but as examples so that
one can demonstrate how global processes affect a variety of places. I have
found that grouping these topics into sub-themes allows me to see global
processes more clearly. I was less likely to talk about the “Americas” and
more likely to compare the role of the individual in empire expansion through
the Incas, Sundiata and Genghis Khan. The case studies selected might be
places (a land or water region, empire, country, or city), climatic events,
commodities, individuals, a specific time, or a religion.5 You might consider some
instances where one place is followed all the way through the syllabus.
Alternatively, you might decide to focus on different areas during each
time period under study. It is important not only to focus on places of
dominance or places of dense population, but also places which are involved
in global processes and might actually be more representative of the greater
mass of humanity at a given time.6 A variety of case studies will result in a curriculum
that is both global and that reflects the many sources of world history.
These topics and case studies will help to generate the key questions that
in turn will help to narrow the focus of the unit. The key questions are
a critical component of a theme driven curriculum. They place what is already
an active idea into a question that allows students to see the argument
and debate. The topics and case studies help them to process varying responses
to that question, relating the theme at the same time to broader historical
contexts, and to their own lives.
The world history survey is a difficult course to
teach not only because of its global reach and its temporal expansiveness
but also because of the variety of disciplines that help to support world
history research. The world history course needs to be inter-disciplinary
at every level. Consider for each unit the major disciplines that are being
called upon. History itself has many branches—this ensures that we are addressing
social and cultural history as well as perhaps the more common political
and military history. Literature, economics, religion, sociology, anthropology,
science, and archaeology all also provide insight into the global processes
that are part of the course. As a syllabus is created, consider how best
to utilize these approaches. Most fundamental to world history, in my opinion,
is geography. Without geography as a foundation, students have a difficult
time understanding the importance of location, connections, and exchanges—all
key concepts in world history. In designing a syllabus, regularly include
topics and activities that build geographic literacy skills. This leads
to the next level of thinking about syllabi. What skills, beyond geography,
should be reinforced and taught in the course? World history can help teach
sequencing, mental mapping, developing arguments, working with historical
and literary sources, media literacy, visual interpretation, comparison,
seeing the big picture, change over time, cause and effect, working with
scale, research, presentations, thesis development, and writing. When considering
your content, think about the skills that can be taught simultaneously.
For example, in the AP course, one can teach a lesson on the importance
of periodization by providing students with an example of a bad thesis and
then a brief outline of what a good essay on periodization might include.
The task of students is to then to rewrite the thesis so that it is analytical
and provides a road map for the essay. In the process, they have improved
thesis writing skills and learned about periodization. These skills need
to be developed over the span of the course, ensuring time for student practice
and refinement. A survey course that builds skills is one that creates historical
thinkers—more important in the long run than one that relies on rote memorization
Waiting until this point in the syllabi-creation
process to turn to resources will result in a course less driven by texts.
But the resource question is important. Availability, access, cost and quality
are all factors to consider when deciding on a textbook and on supplementary
sources. Space will not permit further discussion of this, but an upcoming
issue of World History Connected will deal with this very issue!
In addition, a syllabus should offer a variety of
instructional and assessment strategies. Instructional strategies might
include simulations, role-plays, seminar discussion, guided lectures, power
point presentations, video clips, and projects that will engage students
in the process of learning. Assessment suggestions should be designed to
have students apply the information they have learned through writing, portfolios,
or presentations, and in the case of the AP course, also for the external
exam. Objectives for assessment should be content application (not just
regurgitation), skill enhancement, and accountability (for students and
I have so far described the process of syllabi creation
as I think it should be. But I do want to throw in a dose of reality. Knowing
the demands placed upon a classroom teacher with multiple preps and papers
to grade (plus an outside life, one hopes), the actual implementation of
the syllabus above could be a long process. The curriculum development necessary
to do “cutting-edge world history” is massive. Innovative approaches to
“doing world history” often mean that curriculum development becomes a constant
chore. For example, it seemed like an interesting idea to compare religious
schisms in Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. I researched the topic and
then put together a graphic organizer activity for students to create. Putting
together this lesson was fun, but it was also time consuming, and in the
end it only represented one day of class time for one course!
The following checklist for syllabi creation has
worked well at Institutes and beyond as educators have begun to reconceptualize
their own courses. Table 6-1 is broken into three parts which includes Questions
to ask of a Syllabus, a content checklist, and a skills checklist. In the
developmental stages of syllabi creation, these provide helpful reminders
about periodization, units of analysis, skills, strategies, and pacing.
Table 6-1 Questions to Ask of a Syllabus
|Peter Stearns points to discussions about curricular change where some believe that there needs to be compromise between the canonists (this is the list of what they need to know) and “radicals.” He argues that, rather, the first step in curricular change must be a “fundamental initial innovation.” He cites as an example the efforts first made by social historians in textbooks. Textbooks included special sidebars on women, but the overall narrative was still political. Stearns argues that, “As a way station, the snippets approach made some sense. Revolutions do not occur overnight, and a few more lessons one year might lead—in a few bold cases, did lead – to an entire unit the next. For the most part, however, adding an occasional snippet to textbooks or to course syllabi proved counterproductive in that it excused teachers from giving any real thought to combining old and new.” 7 He goes on to claim that these snippets provided no continuity for dealing with social history themes and since they were so out of context with the rest of the text or the course, did not offer an opportunity for comparison. This is much like the celebration of Black History Month or Women’s History Month. More attention needs to paid to integrating these topics throughout the curriculum rather than isolating them from the mainstream of history.||13|
|In writing up syllabi for a survey course, there is the constant recognition that it is in fact a very personal journey through the material that I will take with my students. But the hope is that there are elements within each that may be of value for others. It is through this belief that I have included a brief discussion of a possible syllabi for the two year high school world history course.||14|
A Two Year High School World History Course
One of the breakthroughs for me in devising this
syllabus was how to approach the topics within each theme. Initially brainstorming
led to regional/ place based topics. But those changed into sub-themes in
order to create a more integrated course. That way students encounter, for
example, the Mongols and the Aztecs on the same day as comparable empires
with strong leaders. Further depth and study would be done on each, but
the topic would begin and end with parallels, connections or comparisons—that
is, a look at the Big Picture.
Highlights for Ninth Grade:
The first unit of each of these syllabi is Philosophy
of World History. The main focal point is a discussion of the units of analysis
in world history (i.e. civilizations, regions, water bodies, the nation
state, ethnic groups, peoples, cities, religions, commodities). This discourse
provides students with an understanding that world history needs to be approached
on a variety of scales and levels depending on the questions being asked.
Also in each course, there is an emphasis on mental mapping where students
are required to develop a spatial framework in their heads. The themes for
each unit build upon the idea of Community and Control and also upon each
other as students proceed through the year. So, for example, the second
unit for the ninth grade is on Building Community.8
This unit works well for establishing what a community is and for providing
an alternate vision to early civilizational history. After seeing specific
aspects of how a community evolves—through migration, trade, architecture,
religion, education and other factors—students see the connection between
past and present. Students engage in a UNESCO simulation where they do research
and oral presentations to protect world heritage sites from around the world.
In addition, the theme of community naturally lends itself to contemporary
situations. In the fall of 2002, students were able to look at an historical
architectural site (i.e. The Parthenon, the Kaaba) and compare the sense
of community each structure represented to sense of community represented
by the World Trade Center.
|It is in the fourth theme that the sub-themes really stand out as being different from traditional regional units of analysis. The theme for the unit is Ways of Power: Empire and Expansion. Here I felt strongly that I did not want to proceed empire by empire. Thus, the unit begins with the idea of “Empires Gaining and Maintaining Power” by looking at the role of the individual. In this way, students will see human agency even when considering great empires. They will also see cases studies that are not normally considered together. Looking at the Aztec, Mali and Mongol empires provides interesting contrasts and similarities, particularly in terms of leadership. The next two sub-themes, dealing with trade and religion, also list case studies that are representative of the many possibilities one could choose from. When devising the sub-themes, I had to think about what message certain themes would send about the time period, and what case studies could best represent those themes. It is essential then for this time to discuss the Indian Ocean world, Islam, and the Chinese, and the technological developments of the time—all of which interrelate between the three themes.||17|
Unit Five began as a unit to make sure that Africa
and the Americas were not left out until the Europeans got there. It looks
at how power is represented through architecture and art as well as the
control of technology and land. This is an ideal time to develop the concept
of feudalism in Japan and Europe. In addition, ceremonial as well as sacred
architecture can demonstrate technological skill and political and religious
beliefs. A focus on material culture lends itself to student-generated PowerPoint
presentations on art and architecture. It was important to me that Unit
VI not break with 1500. Looking at cartography, connections, collisions
and global consequences, the age is not about European exploration but about
a cosmopolitan world system before 1500 and an increasingly global system
following 1500. Perspective is an important skill in this unit as students
look at travel literature and evolving worldviews. Global processes become
increasingly evident with the increase of eastern as well as western migrations,
diasporas, and the worldwide movement of flora, fauna and germs. This unit
also sets up a good periodization discussion around the significance of
the year 1500. In the last time period for the ninth grade course, the idea
of power or control finds new forms of expression within local communities.
As empires expand and there is an increasing exploitation of resources and
labor, students can see changes and continuities in the world through economics
Highlights for Tenth Grade:
In the tenth grade course, following the initial
Philosophy unit, there is a unit that examines intellectual thought. It
looks backwards and forwards in time beginning the unit with a bit of review
and also a look at worldviews in the early nineteenth century. Through science
and technology (as well as attitudes that evolve out of the changing industrial
and imperial world regarding gender, race and class), this unit looks at
the big ideas that will shape the tenth grade course. A unit on reform and
one on family ensures global representation and attention to varied perspectives.
The role of education through literacy campaigns such as the one in Cuba
is particularly interesting to students. The next unit looks at Global Industrialization
through sugar and textiles. Both of these commodities have interesting global
narratives which can be told through a specific place, Brazil and Japan
(or India) for example. Understanding a global process can be seen through
the local example—students learning to negotiate the scale between such
traverses. The fourth unit of the tenth grade course is the first of two
identity units, stressing the community element of the overarching theme.
“Defining Rights, Finding Identity” deals with what identity means, and
then explores nationalism. It also looks at how people sought political
and economic identity through revolution and reform, and how those changes
influenced their lives. Too often the nineteenth century is told via the
eyes of the imperializer. By talking about resistance to political, economic,
and social change numerous case studies involving imperialism as well as
trade and religion can be discussed. The last sub-theme ensures that all
perspectives are voiced. Resistance to change by, for example, people in
the United States, South Africa, and Russia is raised as a reminder that
change is usually difficult.
|A unit on Global conflict and world order connects 1898 to the present—rather than the traditional 1914 to 1945 divide. Students engage in discussions of collateral damage in warfare and conflicts over identity, ideology, land and resources. Technology, conflict, human rights issues, genocide, migration, and international law are raised as global processes. By necessity students learn less about the battles of World War II and more about the nature, causes and consequences of conflict. The last unit focuses on identity and how responses to Globalization worldwide stem in part from a search for this new identity. Case studies vary significantly in this unit as one is done on Japan to demonstrate a microcosm of globalization and varied responses within. Also international organizations, ideologies, and consumerism are highlighted. The last unit concerns the role of global citizens and addresses issues of student empowerment.||20|
|Limitations: One of the limitations of this syllabus involves resources. Finding appropriate materials for all class levels with a non-traditional approach is challenging and time consuming, though not impossible. Despite the fact that this course is drawn out over two years (as opposed to the one-year course many people are now required to teach), it still moves at a fast pace. I question whether I have been selective enough. Do the themes narrow down the subject enough that the course becomes reasonable? I also worry that by using the overarching themes of community and control, the ideas of power and dominance may be too prevalent. I think the emphasis on community counterbalances this most of the time, along with an emphasis on labor, economics, material culture etc. An additional limitation may be experienced by students who do not take the two-year sequence with the same teacher.||21|
|In closing, I have a few final observations about the process of writing a syllabus. The success of any syllabus is largely dependent on the audience. What works well in terms of pacing one year may not work with another class. Making sure that the themes are focused enough to really narrow down the content possibilities will make it a less stressful course to teach. It is important to be able to provide your rationale for teaching world history and what the underlying objectives are (success on the AP exam, the building of skills, appreciation for diversity, understanding of historical trends so as to better understand the future, etc.) This is a course people either love or hate to teach. In order to enjoy it, the teacher needs to own the syllabus. By choosing case studies based on personal interests, periodically using photographs from travels, assigning excerpts from favorite literature, and by reaping the benefits of diversity in the classroom, students also will take ownership in the course. Connecting the past to the present regularly through themes and historical extensions also provides this link. Current events can help to understand the past. Writing a syllabus for a course is easier once it has been taught at least once so revision (of one’s own or someone else’s) will come easier than starting from scratch. Most importantly, the course needs to flow. How do the units transition from one to another? Do the overarching themes provide overall coherence? In choosing units of analysis, it helps to avoid compartmentalizing places and instead show how places, peoples and ideas have interacted through time. By regularly updating a syllabus with new scholarship and new ideas, teachers stay fresh and students remain engaged. Sharing syllabi is a enriching process for all involved.||22|
Biographical Note: Deborah Johnston teaches world history at Lexington High School in Lexington, Massachusetts.
1 This column is based on parts of the author’s dissertation, Rethinking World History: Conceptual Frameworks for the World History Survey (2003). Specific model syllabi are available for Grade 9, 10, AP, College Early and Modern, and a Graduate Methods course at www.NewWorldHistory.net/syllabi. For further questions, contact email@example.com.
2 Stearns, Meaning over Memory: Recasting the Teaching of Culture and History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 135- 17.
3 Primary Source Workshop, January, 1998. Watertown, Massachusetts.
4 For me, the process of theme selection came from over 80 interviews with world history educators and historians, trial and error in the classroom, and reading world history. Bill Zeigler was one of the people instrumental in getting me thinking about how to make themes active.
5 There are many models in world history research that help to provide background for these approaches. For example, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, in Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature (New York: Free Press, 2002) organizes world history through environmental regions.
6 An example of this can be found in Donald Wright’s The World and a Very Small Place in Africa: A History of Globalization in Niumi, the Gambia (Armonk, N.Y. : M.E. Sharpe, 2004, 2nd edition). Wright follows a small place for a thousand years, placing events in global context and, as a result, probably reflecting the position of many Africans, Asians and Latin Americans in the nineteenth century.
7 Stearns, Meaning over Memory, 124-125.
8 Stearns, Meaning over Memory,167-68.
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