Though I’m not yet a history teacher, I’m beginning to discover that one of the most difficult tasks of my future profession is organization of content. This realization was confirmed after reading Mark Lukach’s blog post “In Defense of Thematic World History”, in which he wrote, “Any good historian who truly loves their craft will confess that content selection is by far the most difficult and painful part of the process of teaching: what do you cover? What do you cut out? Can you make time for this, or that, or do they both need to go?”. Lukach was only in his second year of teaching World History at the time.
Even after years of teaching, experienced educators still raise questions about the organization of their content. Diana Laufenberg (“Diana Laufenberg on Teaching History Thematically”), Christopher Ferraro (“Teaching the Long Nineteenth Century (1750-1914) in World History: A Document-Based Lesson and Approach”), and Sharon Cohen (“Listening to Students Talk About Gender in the World History Classroom”) have all been history teachers for over a decade, but they continue to question the standard format of teaching history and instead think of new ways to organize content. Instead of teaching chronologically, they choose to teach thematically. They have all been satisfied by the results.
Teaching history chronologically may make the most sense because it follows a specific timeline. But instead of really understanding the impact of certain events or people, I feel as though the chronologic method only scratches the surface of understanding history. Students may learn what happens, when it happens, why it happens, and who is involved, but they may not develop a deeper understanding for the history they are learning. The thematic approach offers students a new way to look at history, and Cohen, who examined a gender theme in the classroom, argues that examining a student’s analysis of a theme in relation to “patterns of continuity and change can serve as a useful diagnostic tool to assess their historical thinking skills.”
My main worry about thematic teaching was that students may get confused about when events occurred. Sure, a date can be attributed to a certain event when teaching, but students may have difficulty keeping track of dates if they’re not emphasized (that has always been a problem for me as a history student). I think Lukach developed a sound strategy to approach this problem: he spent the first two weeks reading pages from David Christian’s This Fleeting World and establishing a timeline of events in world history. “It was a whirlwind pace,” Lukach wrote, “but what it did was create a certain degree of chronological literacy for my students.”