Organizing Content in a History Classroom: Thematic vs. Chronological

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.”

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3 thoughts on “Organizing Content in a History Classroom: Thematic vs. Chronological

  1. Claire,

    As per usual, your post was very informative and insightful. I want to specifically comment on the point you made about chronological teaching only scratching the surface of the topics. This approach only affords so much information. It lacks the depth that is indicative of truly understanding history. History contains many patterns within it, and connections to other time periods and it is sometime difficult to convey that if you are pigeon-holing each unit to a specific time period and concentrating on getting dates, people, and places-sometimes themes and historical connections fall to the wayside.That is not to say that you have to completely rule out chronology, you can always do a timeline activity between units to make sure students are grasping the basic order of events in addition to the themes.

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  2. You bring up some valid points when it comes to teaching thematically over chronologically. There are some drawbacks when it comes to teaching history. Some drawbacks are what do I cut out of my class, and how much time do I focus on a topic. These might be some of the issues when it comes to teach chronologically and not thematically. When teaching chronologically you just highlight some of the important content. With thematic teaching you can focus on a particular theme and teach the theme in some sort of chronological order. Students may also get confuse when it comes to the content already taught earlier in a theme. With thematic teaching you can connect one theme with another theme this might be harder when teaching content chronologically.

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    1. Claire I thought you did a good job highlighting the strengths but more importantly weaknesses of teaching thematically over chronologically. I have to say I had not thought about the problems regarding dates when it comes to history. I think you are correct in that many students have trouble remembering the most well known and repeated dates as it is, how would they be able to remember new dates is the subject is not taught linearly?
      Christos you also bring up an excellent point of the shortcomings of teaching thematically in regards to time management specifically with how much time should a teacher spend on a theme, for example is understanding what Liberalism is more important than knowing what Marxism is? I wonder how the make up of a standardized test would have to change in order to facilitate this new teaching style if this becomes the norm.? You guys both bring up good points which has made this reading a lot more engaging the the previous ones!

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