Covering Historical Content in the Time Available
by James L. Smith
Question: How can history teachers possibly cover everything required by the curriculum?
Answer: They can’t.
Let that answer be liberating!
Teachers who try to cover everything will likely fail, leaving little time to help students understand the complexities of history and develop academic skills at the highest levels. Besides, the amount of material covered does not necessarily equal the amount of material students learn.
The question that began this article should be revised: How can teachers cover enough information and still leave time for students to explore significant topics in depth?
The answer to that question can be found in my six suggestions for balancing depth and breadth in a history classroom.
Rather than trying to cover everything in the textbook (the ball-of-string approach), focus on helping students develop their academic skills while exploring a few well-selected historical topics in depth.
- Think of the history curriculum as a series of topics that can be explored in depth and then use those topics to help students develop reading, writing, and thinking skills.
- Provide students with historical documents and reading assignments that prompt students to ask questions and make inferences on their own. Help students learn to be independent thinkers and learners.
- Require students to write often. Writing assignments should require students to make assertions and then defend those assertions with specific, accurate, and relevant historical information.
Use “essential” or "big picture" questions to focus attention on significant issues and topics in history.
- Begin each unit with a question or statement that address an essential issue for the unit. The answer to an essential question should be open to interpretation, and the question should help students focus their attention on what most matters in the unit. Throughout the unit, encourage students to link historical information to the essential question.
- Note: Essential concepts or themes can often be taken from state or local standards and benchmarks.
Before the semester begins decide what percentage of instruction time will be devoted to specific historical time periods. Take an uncompromising approach to sticking with the plan. (Say to yourself, “By September 15, come hell or high water, I will begin my unit on the Washington Administration.")
Begin each unit with a quick overview of important people events, terms, and dates that are essential to understanding the unit.
- Begin each unit by providing students with a study guide containing a list of essential information for the unit. The study guide should narrow the unit down to the basic information that every history student should know. Students should then complete the study guide with information gleaned from textbooks, lectures, research, and classroom activities.
- Cover essential information at the beginning of each unit as quickly as possible. Leave enough time during the unit to explore some topics in depth with supplemental readings and original source documents.
Avoid being overly dependent on the textbook.
- Work toward creating a history class that uses the textbook primarily as a reference book.
- Select readings from the textbook that prompt an in-depth study of a historical topic that will help students develop analytical thinking skills.
- Select pictures, graphs, and original source documents from the textbook that will help students develop their analytical thinking skills.
- Note: The suggestion to avoid being overly dependent on the textbook is much easier to achieve for experienced history teachers. New teachers are advised to use a good textbook as a guide to essential historical content.
How to Balance Depth and Breadth in a History Classroom
- Reduce the breadth of content covered.
- Reduce the emphasis on memorization of historical information.
- Require a greater depth of study within a smaller number of topics.
© 2002, 2013 James L. Smith