You can’t teach the complete history of the world in a semester or even two. It’s simply not possible. The more you try, the more you’ll cram, and the less your students will learn. Mike Burns makes note of this in his essay, “The First-Year World History Teacher’s Survive and Thrive Guide,” which can be found in the text Teaching World History in the Twenty-first Century: A Resource Book. Burns’s essay is helpful because it offers advice to teachers who do face the task of “teaching about 10,000 years of human history in 180 days or less.” Some of Burn’s tips include: making a calendar, writing enduring understandings and essential questions for each unit, giving your students helpful feedback, and joining professional organizations, and by doing so, you will maintain a steady pace in your classroom, while providing your students with the skills they need to think as historians, without having them memorize all the significant dates in human existence. Additionally, Burns points out that you don’t need to know everything about world history to teach world history, and that’s okay. Sometimes you won’t have the answers to your students questions.
In relation to this, the article “‘Uncoverage’ in History Survey Courses” points out that simply “trying to get through vast quantities of material” won’t make your students into better historians. Instead merely feeding students historical fact after historical fact, the focus of a history course should be on how actual historians think and analyze data. Another option for framing world history class is to organize topics by themes instead of chronologically. Morgan Falkner discusses this method in her essay, “Integrating World History Themes,” which can also be found in Teaching World History in the Twenty-first Century: A Resource Book. He points out that students who are exposed to a theme-structured history classroom will form “coherent understandings of history that are meaningful and relevant.” Some of the themes Falkner describes include: humans and their environment, culture, politics and government, economics, and social structures.
Based on my own experiences, theme-based history is a highly effective method of learning/ history. Falkner noted in his essay that he borrowed suggestions from the AP World History curriculum, which is where I first encountered it. While the class was generally chronological, the information was organized into themes such as ancient trade routes or religions. This made it easier to analyze the effects such themes had on world history as a whole. In a sense, we also learned to analyze history as a historian would by learning to examine sources. Also, it was during this time that I realized a teacher doesn’t have to know everything about the subject to be a good teacher, like Burns had pointed out. I asked my teacher a question that he didn’t have the answer to, and he encouraged me to look into it myself. After all, learning history begins by asking questions.
To contrast this, I also took a world history honors class my freshman year of high school (this was before I had really discovered my interest in history; I later took WHAP my senior year as an elective). My teacher was the type who tried to teach us everything. We spent the first week watching documentaries about Neanderthals and spent entirely too long learning about the middle ages (the Western medieval world). Because of this, we had to compensate by cutting out large parts of world history. I don’t recall learning much about the Eastern world (aside from Japan’s involvement in WWII).
Of course, in my honors class the teacher was only allotted a single semester to cover the material, whereas in AP world history we had the whole year. That being said, I feel as though a semester-long history course would benefit more from a thematic structure because the teacher could focus on key concepts in relation to one another instead of attempting to cover the entire history of the world without enough time to do so.