Teaching Linear or Concept Based History

In some ways I think that History teachers are complete traditionalists.  We look back into the past and try and translate the virtues and vices of people from the past and make it relevant to future generations.  It seems we have a built in excuse for “good ole boy” syndrome because everyone in the past seems like a larger than life character.  Sometimes we need to break the mold of traditionalism and move with the times of teaching.  In the case of history, it seems this comes down to whether you teach sequentially through history or if you teach in a concept based curriculum.  I would like to have a more definite opinion about the topic, but I am still in process.  I can say though that the choice for a US history teacher is less clear than I thought it might be.

I overhear teachers from time to time snicker under their breath at the idea of teaching linear, sequential history.  Concept based teaching is all over the place and with changing times comes an idea that newer is always better.  I will agree that there are certain things I despise about linear history such as the roller coaster of interest in US history.  Maybe this changes from teacher to teacher, but I would say that there is relatively high interest in the US Revolution, the Civil War, and to a lesser extend the colonial period.  Conversely, there is very little inherent interest in the Constitution and early republic units.  I would say that these may partially be inherent to the age of history and partially because of my interests in the history I teach, but they exist nonetheless.  Linear history also can make it difficult to compact history into understandable chunks.  When we get to the sectionalism section of our curriculum it is difficult for students to remind themselves the extreme differences in the colonies that would lead to the Civil War.  Curriculums are also not equitable in how much time we spend on each unit.  I have heard a myriad of reasons (excuses?) for this over the years ranging from revisionist history to personal preference to the weight of the TEKS on the unit.  If we are to believe that all US history is important, could we not be more equitable in the amount of time we spend on each unit?  Each of these indictments are not a deal breaker in my mind for teaching history sequentially, but they are things that we need to be intentional about in our teaching of history curriculum.  I think we as teachers are aware of these difficulties, but the question is how are we working in our classrooms to minimize these difficulties.  In “good ole boy” history classrooms, I would say these are not even considered because that’s the way they’ve always been taught history.  While this can be the stereotypical old guard history classroom, there are some things that are of great benefit in this classroom.  Foremost on my mind is that we do justice to history by telling it how it happens.  We can see cause and effect relationships in things, we can decide for ourselves what characteristics of eras are when we learn history the way it happens.  If we teach without the surrounding context we lose something beautiful in history: the beautiful way our history fits together to make us who we are.  If we do the hard work of making connections and generalizations for our students we rob them of some of the beauty of history.  We also are given the ability to revisit concepts multiple times because, oddly enough, history repeats itself.  We are constantly dealing with similar events, causes, effects, and relationships in the course of history so why not use those as an opportunity to revisit these ideas?  The least important reason that we should consider sequential history (at least in Texas) is that our standards are written that way.  I am not saying that my state has it right or that we should teach to a test, but I am saying that they have written their standards in a way that makes sense for a sequential teaching of US history.  For my first year of US history, I have taught through mostly sequentially and it has helped me understand how history fits together.  I am not convinced that this is the best way, but there are some definite advantages.

In many history circles, sequential history is considered archaic.  Why would we teach kids things in order?  We need to get them to look at things from a macro level and the way to do that is to use common themes running through history to make connections.  As with sequential history, there are some things that need to be at least considered if you want to make this your teaching method of choice.  The biggest issue is that sequencing of history can be completely thrown out.  My state standards place an importance on being able to formally and informally sequence things in history.  They also are very good at providing a quote with a date on it and expecting the students to be able to place it in time and answer a question about its time in history.  If you do not have an idea of relative sequencing in history it is going to be almost impossible to answer these types of questions.  A good life skill for kids to have is the ability to figure out where in history something happens, but it is almost impossible if a student doesn’t understand the flow of history.  My biggest pet peeve of conceptual history is that often the concepts are personal preference and may put emphasis on areas of history that have no bearing on US history or the future history content.  Ideally student’s history knowledge builds on itself year after year.  If my concepts in US history do not lead to the growth to their ninth grade year, have I robbed my students of growth they would have gotten in an old school history class?  Again, these are not reasons to not to teach conceptually, these are things that need to be compensated for in the classroom.  With that being said, conceptual history does have some distinct advantages.  By covering similar instances at the same time, it allows for very good discussion of important topics.  If I had the ability to have a good, well informed class discussion about “which of the United States’ wars was the most revolutionary?” without having to reteach the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 to do so that would be awesome.  Using the same thought process, it is easier to see how things change over time.  You can talk about how the tactics in the Revolutionary War would or would not have worked for the Civil War or similar topics.  Conceptual history education also allows for the educator to show their passion for specific topics to compensate for less interesting parts of the history curriculum.  Talking about how democracy has changed over time is far more interesting than learning the principles of the constitution in a vacuum.  Conceptual history, while being the method du jure in history circles, has its ups and downs that need to be compensated for.

What is best for kids is always on my mind as an educator.  I want my students to hold on to and retain as much of my content as I possibly can.  To do so, I need to remove as many barriers to learning as I possibly can and compensate for those that cannot be removed.  I constantly struggle and debate about whether conceptual or sequential history is the best way to teach history curriculum, and I think that is a good place to be.  As a wise educator once taught me, “learning happens in the struggle.”

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