Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Teaching History: Categorical or Chronological?

There are essentially two models of history curriculum design: chronological and categorical. For the sake of ensuring everyone is on the same page we will define these two terms quickly. Curriculum design that is done chronologically is the typical method as events, people, and dates occur in the order in which they happened. Curriculum that is categorical is broken up according to major themes (government, human rights, etc.). Both have positives and negatives as any curriculum does yet I have never heard any discussion take place as to which is more effective at teaching kids history. It often results in an “I prefer this” or “I prefer that” discussion that focuses on how the teacher thinks rather than the student learns.

The implications of this information are crucial to history teachers throughout the country. Given that we spend time discussing important issues in US history, it would be nice to have data-driven proof as to what the best way to go about providing the information is. I would hypothesize that most districts (including mine) have curriculum set up in the traditional framework (chronological).

Consider this when you are teaching the Constitution next year. The one unit that I teach that I would label as “categorical” is the Constitution. I go back to ancient Greece and Rome to discuss influences on the belief systems of the founding fathers that influenced the major documents in United States history. Then we go through an evolution of the Constitution including discussion of major Supreme Court cases and the importance of each of the amendments. I also revisit these amendments when I get to their point in the traditional curriculum. It would be impossible to teach the Civil War and Reconstruction without discussing the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. I find that this leaves students with a greater understanding of the importance of the Constitution and how it influences their daily lives.

My point is this: we need to find out the best way to present history to kids on a macro (curriculum) as well as micro (instruction) level. The faster we come up with this information, the easier the time we will all have in engaging kids and providing them with the means of instruction that best fits THEM.


This Post written by Aaron Eyler
for more information about Aaron, visit his "21st Century Education" blog at http://stretchourminds.blogspot.com/

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Pam Walter said...

I think this is a very interesting question and presents a challenge for any teacher of history. Like you, I can see advantages to both. Would it be possible to create the factual framework by first teaching chronology of events and then moving (in the later grades) to a more categorical approach? Perhaps the fundamental questions are: Why do we teach history and what do we expect people to do with their knowledge of it?

Aaron Eyler said...

I love your second question because that speaks to the heart of our discipline. What exactly do we want kids to do with their historical knowledge and how would they apply it in the "real world?" This is the question that I use any time I am beginning a unit. We always start with making sure that the basic content knowledge is there and then I try to turn them into "historians" by asking them to investigate the aspects of the unit that particularly appeal to them. This allows for kids to branch out into social, political, military, etc. histories that are more appealing to them. The beauty is would be when they reflect and spend a day teaching each other about what they have uncovered and trying to make connections to the present. More and more I find myself getting better at this, but it is still a work in progress. Thanks for your comment! -AE

Chad Evans said...

When I think about project based learning and unit design, I think there is room for both approaches in there. In a unit on the constitution, students would be analyzing and researching and applying the chronological AND categorical . I think your point that the focus is typically on teacher preference rather than student learning is key in that we need to be willing to deviate from "our plan" when student inquiry wants to get off the path. I still struggle with storytelling in that I probably do too much of it. What I have found though, is if I get out of the way and help push students in different directions, they can discover those stories on their own and they mean so much more. I have tried both approaches and I have found that some things NEED to be understoond chronologically but then analyzed and applied categorically by the students. The key is to listen to your students and empower them to make those connections. I'm not sure that data will ever point us to a better way to "teach" history when our focus needs to be on how students learn the lessons of the past...

Gecko85 said...

Since I couldn't find a comment form or email link on your site, I'll have to leave it in the comments:

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What happened when Google visited this site?

Of the 4 pages we tested on the site over the past 90 days, 2 page(s) resulted in malicious software being downloaded and installed without user consent. The last time Google visited this site was on 2009-06-01, and the last time suspicious content was found on this site was on 2009-06-01.

Malicious software includes 3 scripting exploit(s).

Malicious software is hosted on 2 domain(s), including martuz.cn/, gumblar.cn/.

This site was hosted on 1 network(s) including AS26496 (PAH).
So, you may not be aware that your sites are serving up malicious code aimed at taking control of a users computer. If those aren't your sites, you might want to remove the links in your sidebar...if they are your sites, you may want to change your passwords and re-publish all your pages after cleaning out the offending code.


Winston Jeffers said...

Hmmm. Well, having been an AP history student for several years now, I definitely prefer a chronoogical appproach. While things may not be as "grouped" as nicely, events in history become much clearer. When you go in order, students are able to see cause and effect, developments, and other important aspects of history. It is also much easier to understand when things go in the order they occured; from first hand experience, the teacher would jump through history, which made things all the more confusing and hard to remember once test time rolled around. Not to say that categorical isn't bad; at the end of the year, my teacher went through different "categories" of history that spaned several eras; that too was helpful.
Conclusion: Chronological initally, Categorical after the fact

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