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Teachers as Mediators of Conceptual Complexity in World History

David Neumann


     Advanced Placement (AP) World History offers a tremendous learning challenge for many students. They often feel daunted by the geographical and chronological scale of a world history course that includes content about many regions of the world from the dawn of agriculture to the present. To manage course content on such a large scale textbooks often describe complex historical processes at high levels of abstraction. The College Board's themes for AP World History reflect these broad and often abstract concepts: interaction between humans and the environment; development and interaction of cultures; state-building, expansion, and conflict; creation, expansion, and interaction of economic systems; and development and transformation of social structures.1 Such theoretical concepts create significant comprehension challenges for many fifteen-year-old high school sophomores.

     Teachers must strike a balance between maintaining the sophistication of course content and communicating that content clearly to students. AP World History teachers' efforts to mediate student understanding must properly diagnose the source of student difficulty in reading textbooks, typically the basic source of historical content in AP world history. Teachers tend to focus on the challenges of vocabulary by requiring their students to create flash cards for discrete key terms from text. But this approach is often insufficient, as students' struggles stem from the deeper linguistic challenge of the textbooks' historical discourse.2 While authors generally attempt to make their textbooks accessible to a non-specialist audience and often provide various aids to guide reading, high school students continue to struggle with the discourse—the disciplinary assumptions, context, and concepts—of professional world history.

     Teachers can assist students' learning by helping them attend to the larger language structures of the textbook, rather than simply discrete vocabulary. Because historical language often relies on metaphors to convey abstract concepts and patterns, one way teachers can effectively support student learning is to make the implicit—and therefore invisible—conceptual framework "visible" to their students. While there are many ways to provide this assistance to students, the last portion of this essay will explore the way one AP world history has done this quite literally, through visual depictions that illustrate the structures and patterns represented in the text. Historical patterns are often conceptually dense and often dynamic, so the capability of PowerPoint to move elements across a slide and to modify an image through successive slides becomes a useful tool for developing student learning step by step.

Conceptual Complexity in World History

     To succeed in AP world history, students must make sense of challenging conceptual knowledge. Difficult concepts appear throughout the college-level texts typically used in AP courses. Chapter subheadings from popular college-level world history textbooks include titles like "The Hellenistic Synthesis," "Imperial Parallels," "Expansion and Collapse," and "Centralization and Militarism in East Asia, 1200-1500." Dense text is even more opaque than these titles. Consider the following text, part of an introduction to a familiar and important moment in recent world history:

The geopolitical and ideological rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States lasted almost five decades and affected every corner of the world. The cold war was responsible for the formation of military and political alliances, the creation of client states, and an arms race of unprecedented scope. It engendered diplomatic crises, spawned military conflicts, and at times brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. It was a contest in which neither side gave way, yet in the end the United States and the Soviet Union always avoided a direct clash of arms, hence the term cold war.3

Several challenges for students lurk in these four dense sentences. First, a welter of abstract concepts refers to important but often intangible realities: geopolitics, ideology, alliances, states, arms, diplomacy. Second, the authors describe a number of entities using analogical language. Nations have rivalries, so apparently they can compete in the same ways as athletes—or siblings. The idea that a state can have a "client," an analogy drawn from the world of commerce, may puzzle to students. An "arms race" requires that students recognize that leaders in one country attempted to match the quantity and sophistication of weapons of those of the other country. Then there is the paradox of "cold war" itself, defined in the text but still likely to be unclear to students. Wars by definition involve fighting, so the fact that the US and Soviet Union never engaged in direct combat seems odd. Of course, the use of the qualifier "cold" renders the description of the relationship more accurate, as long as students recognize that actual temperature is not in view. Third, abstract forces are personified. No human actor appears in this portion of text. Nations, not the leaders responsible for governing them, behave stubbornly in refusing to give way, yet also prudently in avoiding direct conflict. The Cold War itself, an abstract term referring to an abstract historical situation between two personified entities, gives birth to ("engenders" and "spawns") a spate of global problems. This language is fundamentally metaphorical.

     This text about the Cold War is drawn from a chapter entitled "The Bipolar World" in a unit entitled "Contemporary Global Realignments, 1914 to the Present." While both labels are precise and useful from the perspective of historians, they may also be abstract and metaphorical to student readers. Obviously, the world was never physically divided. And the idea of bipolarity—once students understand that it does not refer to a psychological condition—is a helpful metaphor for the creation of superpower alliance blocs, but one that substantially reduces the complexity of the world between 1945 and 1991. Likewise, though it is helpful to think of the ways that centers of global power shifted in the twentieth century, most students need help understanding how planet earth could "realign." There is good reason for using such metaphorical language in an academic context, and this analysis of the ideas behind Cold War terms may seem overly literal. Nevertheless, many teachers' experience suggests just how difficult students find this type of text—and the ideas it addresses—because it uses abstract conceptual language.

     Perhaps the key difference between expert and novice understanding of a subject resides in the conceptual framework that organizes that knowledge, rather than in the quantity of knowledge experts possess.4 History experts recognize that structures of political power, methods of meeting economic needs or wants, and social relationships often follow particular patterns and that those generic patterns can be applied to particular historical circumstances. While acknowledging the contingency and uniqueness of specific historical events or structures, they can also generalize and therefore compare these patterns across space and time. Attentive to the dangers of overgeneralizing or inappropriately importing assumptions from one place and time into another, they possess a rough framework to apply to new historical circumstances. In short, experts have substantial background knowledge and generic frameworks for abstract concepts like governance, economics, class, etc. that may be applied to different historical circumstances.

     AP World History is designed to encourage the development of expert thinking through a focus on concept over factual recall. The College Board's AP World History Course and Exam Description explains: "The course's organization around a limited number of key concepts instead of a perceived list of facts, events, and dates makes teaching each historical period more manageable…This approach enables students to spend less time on factual recall, more time on learning essential concepts, and helps them develop historical thinking skills necessary to explore the broad trends and global processes involved in their study of AP World History."5

     Developing this conceptual understanding offers a real challenge. Students are more likely, for example, to attend to the name or title of a leader discussed in class or in the textbook than they are to the more significant and enduring imperial structure under which he operated and the function of his role. In comparing ancient Mesopotamia to ancient Egypt, students sometimes conclude that their leadership structures differed because one had a "king" while the other had a "pharaoh." Students sometimes struggle to distinguish the crucial from the merely anecdotal and, consequently, and attempt to remember both—and succeed in understand the significance of neither very well. As one student said to Professor of Education Bruce VanSledright, "The ideas are all jumbled in my head."6

Teachers as Mediators of Complexity Through Metaphor

     Some education scholars, influenced by Piagetian notions of cognitive development by stages, continue to believe that students cannot learn abstract or conceptual knowledge until they reach a certain age or cognitive threshold.7 However, a variety of recent studies suggest that age does not seem to be a fixed barrier in children's ability to grasp abstract knowledge.8 Teachers routinely mediate difficult conceptual knowledge to their students in a process familiarly known as scaffolding,

the social interaction among students and teachers that precedes internalization of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions deemed valuable and useful for the learners. It is an instructional tool that reduces learning ambiguity, thereby increasing growth opportunities…As the teacher or more knowledgeable person creates a supporting structure that can initiate and sustain interest, the students become involved. As the students gradually gain control of the task, they take over more of the responsibility.9

While a gap in research literature prevents one from drawing definitive conclusions about the kind of instruction that best challenges more basic student knowledge,10 skilled instruction undoubtedly moves students to more sophisticated levels of understanding.

     Some scholarship emphasizes the importance of linguistic tools as a form of scaffolding.11 New knowledge is typically mediated linguistically, that is, through words. Whether through reading, lecture, or class discussion, students acquire new knowledge through listening to or reading new information, and talking or writing about it. This obvious point cannot be overlooked, as it is crucial to understanding the learning challenges students face and, therefore, to the creation of useful support for student success. University of Michigan Professor of Education Robert Bain has argued that cognitive tools make visible the expert thinking present in a history classroom that would otherwise remain invisible. Since the conceptual frameworks underlying language use in history are typically implicit, they are therefore necessarily invisible to students.12

     The remainder of this paper will concentrate on the quite literal use of the creation of visual illustrations to represent important concepts in world history. While some linguists have explored the discipline-based structure of historical texts,13 one key dimension has often been overlooked: the role of metaphor. While study of metaphorical language is at least as old as Plato, until recently metaphor remained the purview of scholars of literature or philosophy. In the last few decades, philosophers and linguists have exploded the myth that metaphor centers on the novel expressions constructed by creative people like poets. 14 Instead, they have demonstrated how basic metaphors are in the construction of most human understanding and speech. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are cognitive and not simply linguistic, natural to human thought because they derive largely from sensorimotor experience. Our understanding of abstract concepts is shaped by metaphors.15

     Lakoff and Johnson explore several categories of abstract understanding that depend on metaphors: events, actions, states, ideas, and causation.16 Though the authors explore the understanding of lay people, history specialists use the same tools. Some historians have explicitly explored the role of metaphor in historical writing, most notably Hayden White.17 World historians, who often explore large-scale patterns, often explicitly make use of metaphors. Patrick Manning's survey of the field of professional world history endorses contemporary world historians' continued use of metaphors to "model the dynamics of past life." In discussing strategies for research design, Manning argues that along with typology, mechanism, and theory, "metaphor provides another basis around which to build an analytical strategy—one allowing for more imagination and avoiding the explicit, dynamic assumptions of a model or theory." He goes on to explore mechanical, organic, and societal models that appear regularly in world history analysis.18 World history teachers who recognize historical texts' reliance on metaphor are in a better position to enable their students to master the complexity of the past.

An Example of Teaching Through Metaphor

     This strategy has been used regularly in the classroom of Anthony Arzate, an AP World History teacher in Long Beach, California. For the last several years, over 150 sophomores have enrolled each year in his open-access course, including many students of average ability. Arzate has developed a number of illustrations for world history, including the following: Neolithic Revolution, Hindu worldviews, centralized bureaucratic empire, government in Islamic societies, the Enlightenment and liberalism, stages of revolution, rural to urban migration, dependency theory, motives and technologies of "new imperialism," and the intersection between the Cold War and decolonization. Arzate explains the importance of this approach, by observing the way world history is often taught:

Teachers sometimes simply launch into a lesson on the facts of the French Revolution—origins, storming of the Bastille, Reign of Terror, Rise of the Convention etc.—while overlooking the fact that their novice audience does not actually know what "a revolution" is. Furthermore, because "revolutions" are so commonplace in a history classroom, it is more important for students understand the process of revolution them it is for them to memorize endless facts about the French Revolution in particular.

     For analytical purposes, I will consider two categories of conceptual knowledge that challenge world history students due to their implicit metaphorical nature: structure and process. I will provide one example of a visual representation of that abstract concept created by Arzate using PowerPoint that he has successfully used as scaffolding to make an abstract metaphor from the language of world history visible and intelligible to high school students. PowerPoint allows the teacher to explain a dense metaphor step by step, adding complexity as student understanding increases. Many of the metaphors address dynamic processes, in which the animated nature of PowerPoint becomes even more important.

     Like physical buildings, historical structures imply relatively durable social or political organizations that have been constructed with at least a measure of intentionality. For example, many pre-modern states (and some modern ones) create some form of monarchy to institutionalize political power and to ensure the orderly transmission of this power from one generation to another. While the degree of power that leaders exercise and the efficiency of power transfers may vary from one leader to another, the similarities matter much more. Textbooks routinely describe the formation of centralized bureaucratic rule among monarchies or empires. At heart, this label is a metaphor indicating where "power," an abstract force, is geographically located.

     High school sophomores—who have as yet little direct experience with government of any kind—have little understanding of how monarchies function, how centralized and decentralized rule might be different, and what a bureaucracy does. Arzate's first illustration helps students to understand issues of control (particularly over a distance) and how a bureaucracy assists in the collection of taxes and information and in the dissemination of government messages.

Figure 1

     The images above represent a historical sequence in which decentralized rule is replaced by centralized rule. Image 1 depicts a decentralized state of affairs before centralization takes place: a nominal central authority ("Han Capital") is only one of several rival states that regularly engage in conflict. This picture of the situation before centralization helps students appreciate the significance of the changes that come after centralization. Image 2 shows the beginnings of centralization. The government conquers rivals and posts local government officials in their area. Subjects are forced to confess their allegiance to the government and pay uniform, predictable taxes. Image 3 depicts the cultural tools that support loyalty. The "Mandate of Heaven" ideology provides legitimacy for imperial rule and Confucian schools provide a common education shared by government officials at all levels, the "bureaucrats" of the centralized bureaucratic empire. Finally, Image 4 shows the material tools of centralized bureaucratic rule: infrastructure to facilitate the movement of goods and people (including soldiers to ensure loyalty at the margins of the empire), protection against dangers (like foreign invasion and flooding), and standardized money and weights (to encourage collection of uniform taxes and for trade). Though this multiple-step process looks somewhat different in each world empire, the basic underlying patterns are remarkably similar. Once students understand this abstract pattern in Han China, they can apply it with minimal changes to Rome, the Abbasid Empire, the Mongol Empire, etc. They can concentrate on the nuances of one particular state because they already recognize the broad outline of the general structure. This attention to detail allows them to make more effective comparisons between one monarchy and another.

     World history discourse also addresses processes—patterns of change on a large scale that often have little to do with the agency of one or a handful of actors. Instead, significant change takes place through the accumulated decisions of thousands, perhaps millions, of actors and is best analyzed as a single cumulative process. Common examples in world history include patterns of trade, diffusion of technology, and syncretism in religious conversion. The second illustration shows Arzate's use of animated illustrations to explain the metaphors implied in "dependency theory," a large-scale economic pattern of change that can seem very abstract to students.

Figure 2

Image 1 depicts the basic elements underlying dependency theory: "core" and "periphery" regions. Drawing explicit attention to this language through simple images helps students recognize the metaphorical contrast between regions that drive economic decisions and marginal regions that can only react to the cores in a dependent way. Image 2 provides definitions and characteristics of core and peripheral economies alongside their visual depictions. Image 3 illustrates the way that valuable raw materials like oil and coal are extracted from peripheral regions and brought to core areas to aid in manufacturing. Finally, Image 4 depicts the end products of dependency: wealth is drawn to the core, manufacturing output grows, and manufactured goods are exported to the periphery.

     Through this sequence of images, students develop an understanding of a complex, abstract, controversial theory and, consequently, the ability to evaluate the theory thoughtfully. Reflecting on this strategy, Arzate concludes that

teachers should spend more time teaching these processes and thereby help their students build a base of knowledge that can be built upon throughout the year. For example, if students understand "the process of revolution" in generic terms, then lessons on the French, Haitian, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions are no longer fact-driven narratives of individual historical events. They instead become opportunities for teachers to offer students examples of the revolutionary process and build on prior knowledge. Visuals can be an excellent means of conveying this generic information.

     By the end of the year students are more comfortable with these complex concepts and processes, and indicate their ability to apply the scaffolding to other difficult concepts when they are often able to generate their own useful visual representations. The use of PowerPoint to illustrate sophisticated concepts represents an effective application of technology to provide students with tools for approaching demanding history-social science material. Arzate recognizes that successful student learning hinges on identifying what students understand—and struggle to understand—and how to creatively bridge from that knowledge to the deep disciplinary knowledge that characterizes meaningful learning in history.


     This paper has argued that students often struggle with AP world history content because of the implicit and often invisible disciplinary discourse and framework imbedded in the course and the texts used in the course, and that the solution to this problem is to provide appropriate scaffolding for students. Since the language of world history makes frequent use of metaphors, I argued that teachers must help students make sense of those metaphors. The important first step is simply to alert students to the regular use of metaphorical language that conveys historical concepts. Beyond that, scaffolding can take many forms. For example, in the case of the Cold War text, I suggested that teachers might guide students through a close reading of the text. This paper focused on a strategy in which teachers create visual representations for their students, particularly through the use of PowerPoint which allows teachers to sequence the introduction of complex metaphors one element at a time and, in the case of dynamic processes, to represent patterns of change. While this approach initially seems abstract and complicated, it ultimately rests on the recognition that students need a way into difficult material and that since all knowledge is built on prior knowledge, most sophisticated metaphors are ultimately built on fairly simple foundations—ideas like size, growth, and basic human relationships. This strategy would likely be especially useful for English learners, as it provides non-linguistic reinforcement for heavily linguistic concepts. While teaching the concept embedded in a complex metaphor is time consuming, teachers' strategic investment in introducing metaphors early in the year easily transfers to other content where similar patterns appear. Most students should need less support as year goes on, but others, especially English learners, may need this all year long. Finally, students may be able to create their own visual representations late in the year, but this should not be confused with other similar activities where student creativity is prized. Instead, student visual representations reflect less their artistic abilities than their skill in making sense of the complex ideas that make world history such an engaging subject.

Dave Neumann is Director of the History Project at CSU Long Beach & Dominguez Hills. The Project provides professional development in history-social science to K-12 teachers. Before becoming director of the History Project, he was a classroom teacher for over a decade. Most of that time he taught AP United States and AP World History at Wilson High School, a large urban campus in Long Beach, California. He has been a reader of the AP World history exam for six years. He can be reached at


1 The themes for AP World History are available online at

2 Eggins, Suzanne, Peter Wignell, and J.R. Martin. "The Discourse of History: Distancing the Recoverable Past," In Register Analysis: Theory and Practice. Edited by Mohsen Ghadessy, 75-109. London: Pinter Publishers, 1993. Sam Wineburg addresses the gap between the discourse of professional historians and that of students in his Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), particularly his chapter "On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes On the Breach Between School and Academy."

3 Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective of the Past, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006), 1064. This text was chosen because it is the textbook that Anthony Arzate, the teacher described later in the paper, uses with his students. Use of this text illustrates the textual and linguistic challenges inherent in a college-level history text for many high school students and does not imply any criticism of this excellent, widely-used text.

4 Committee on How People Learn: A Targeted Report for Teachers, How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2004), 6-9.

5 The College Board, AP World History Course and Exam Description (2011), 5, available at

6 Bruce Van Sledright, "'I Don't Remember—the Ideas Are All Jumbled in My Head': Eighth Graders' Reconstructions of Colonial American History," Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 10 (1995), 317-345.

7 Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004), 191.

8 Barton and Levstik, Common Good, 197, conclude that children "have an impressive ability, from a young age, to consider key characteristics of the status of historical knowledge, including the incompleteness of historical evidence and the ways historical accounts and evidence can be influenced by bias or differing perspectives." Even many elementary age students are capable of understanding abstract history content regarding time, evidence, and conflicting historical accounts. See Keith C. Barton, "Research on Students' Ideas About History," in Handbook of Research in Social Studies Education, ed. Linda S. Levstik and Cynthia A. Tyson (New York: Routledge, 2008), 239-245.

9 Laura R. Roehler and Danise J. Cantlon, "Scaffolding: A Powerful Tool in Social Constructivist Classrooms," in Scaffolding Student Learning: Instructional Approaches and Issues, ed. Kathleen Hogan and Michael Pressley (Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books, 1997), 9.

10 Ibid.

11 James Wertsch, Voices of the Mind: A Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).

12 Robert B. Bain, "Into the Breach: Using Research and Theory to Shape History Instruction," in Peter Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 345-346.

13 See, for example, Eggins, et al, "Discourse" and Caroline Coffin, "Constructing and Giving Value to the Past: An Investigation into Secondary School History." In Genre and Institutions: Social Processes in the Workplace and School. Edited by Frances Christie and J.R. Martin (London: Cassell, 1997), 196-230.

14 One of the most thorough modern treatments of the subject is Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language, trans. by Robert Czerny (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981).

15 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), rev. ed. 2003.

16 Ibid., passim.

17 In "Interpretation in History," New Literary Theory 4, no. 2 (1973): 281-314, for example, he defines metaphor as one of four common tropes in historical writing. See also Phillip Stambovsky, "Metaphor and Historical Understanding," History and Theory, 27, no. 2 (May 1988): 125-134, which explores the role of heuristic, depictive, and cognitive metaphors in historical discourse.

18 See Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 136, 283-289; quotes are from 136 and 285, respectively.


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