Preliminary thoughts about teaching general principles of history

The following is taken from from the comments section of a Nov. 6, 2019, blog post. It’s the first discussion on the to consider the question of how to teach general principles of history. Mike Maxwell begins.

I don’t know the best way to structure such a history course (which is why collaboration and classroom experimentation are so important), but I have always envisioned a course that generally followed a chronological approach similar to the The Student’s Friend Concise World History.

The teacher might introduce a number of important general principles at the beginning of the course, and students would look for recurring examples of these principles as students proceeded through the chronological record–-kind of like an Easter egg hunt.

And students would be encouraged to identify their own recurring patterns/general principles of history, which could then be considered by the entire class. Maybe provide an incentive, such as extra credit or a pizza party, for recognizing or suggesting such principles.

This approach wouldn’t fundamentally change the instruction of a teacher who uses the chronological approach; it would simply add another layer to instruction–-one meant to make historical study more meaningful and useful in the future.

But maybe classroom experience might reveal that a thematic approach works better, with the themes being principles of history. 

Personally, I favor a chronological approach because I believe it’s difficult to acquire a good understanding of human development through time-–a good “sense of history”–-when jumping around in time. 

Plus, the chronological approach can make clearer the dynamic of cause-and-effect in history, of downstream effects that result from earlier events. For example, the voyage of Columbus leads to the Atlantic Slave trade to the U.S. Civil War to Jim Crow laws to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The chronological approach—by not focusing on one theme at a time—can make it possible to recognize how contemporaneous events may be interconnected: How, for example, the slave trade was related to Native American genocide and how Black Lives Matter is related to pipelines encroaching on Native lands. 

But that’s just me. Others, of course, may favor different approaches. If you have suggestions about how to structure a history course that features general principles of historical knowledge, please share your thoughts with us, in the comments area below. -Thanks, Mike

Tefel Hall responds: This makes sense. You don’t need to restructure everything; you just need to ask the right questions. For example, “What lesson of history is supported by this historical event?” Or something more open-ended: “What general principal can we deduce from these (and other) events that we have been studying?”

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