Teaching Teachers of World History
Sharon Cohen, October 2009
In professional development workshops or summer institutes, when consultants get to talking about their teacher-participants, one question often looms large. Why do teachers—even the experienced ones—express intense concerns when confronted with teaching world history for the first time? This article explores some of the reasons for such concerns.
Why World History?
According to Bain and Harris’ statistics and the anecdotal data I have collected since 2000, many people teaching world history at the secondary level are either new to teaching or new to teaching world history. There seems to be a similar trend of new hires being asked to teach world history at the collegiate level.1 Why is it that even experienced teachers express concerns when confronted with teaching world history for the first time? They know what is expected for teaching American history or Western Civilization, because the narrative arcs for those courses are clear and most, if not all, experienced history teachers took those courses themselves. World history, however, is more complex than national or regional histories, because it addresses how humans all over the world successfully manipulated the environment to grow in population and power, but also were diminished at times by environmental forces out of their control.2 Geyer and Bright emphasize that since the current globalized world is the result of much integration over time, world history can fruitfully explore the history of that integration.3 Most experienced history teachers did not learn this integrated approach to world history in a formal classroom. They are not sure how to use both thematic and chronological approaches to show their students the major patterns and processes inherent in world history. This is a major shift for many experienced history teachers. No wonder they are feeling a lack of confidence.
The Challenges of Gaining Expertise in Teaching World History
When experienced history teachers show up in my world history workshops or institutes, their lack of confidence about teaching the course is palpable. They ask repeatedly for a complete syllabus, every lesson plan, and even to visit the classroom of an experienced world history teacher. World history seems like an impossible course to those who are accustomed to teaching with some kind of overarching narrative. They worry about “covering” all of the content and seek many examples of how to teach thematically with case studies. They begin to get the global scope only when they see relevant quizzes and tests and realize that they do not have to require their students to learn about every event for the last 10,000 years on the planet. It is only then that they start to accept the feasibility of teaching world history.
According to Bereiter and Scardamalia, expertness is a state that most of us cannot achieve easily.4 We get accustomed to a certain level of competence and stop seeking challenges that require a higher level of problem solving. When confronted with teaching world history for the first time experienced teachers have to acquire new habits of thinking about history. Expert world history teachers can show them how to construct a syllabus with lessons and assessments that demonstrate a global perspective. I have observed over and over again that once experienced teachers new to world history gain confidence about the global approach, they can be more creative about choosing case studies to demonstrate global historical patterns and processes to their students.
The Role of Textbooks and Standardized Testing in World History Teaching
I also think that the failure of textbook authors to include clear models of explaining global patterns and processes confuses teachers who rely on textbooks for their own conceptual map of world history. Until recently, even the world history textbooks created for the collegiate and Advanced Placement markets often presented more of a regional rather than an integrated, global approach. It is easy to see how teachers new to world history who design their unit plans around a world history textbook could become confused about what world history is. They might not see what Eric Martin has identified as the essence of doing world history: “thinking about several different historical variables (such as multiple places) at once, using relationships and connections as units of analysis, breaking down complex processes into interrelated component parts, connecting the local to the global and vice versa, and developing new categories and models of analysis.”5 He also recognizes that teachers new to world history need a “conceptual tool box customized for building answers to complex global questions.”6 The teacher who is asked to teach world history for the first time confronts these multiple levels of complexity. It is up to the expert world history teachers to demonstrate and share their successful toolkits so that the novice world history teacher can start from a place of confidence rather than confusion.
While many of us may cringe from the idea that secondary school teachers have to teach to a test whether it is an Advanced Placement or state assessment examination, it is a reality that most novice world history teachers face. The experienced teacher of American or European history understandably might have found success with emphasis on key terms and facts for their students to memorize for the national or state test. When I and other teachers of new world history teachers share syllabi and assessments that have led students to success on the relevant tests, the confidence level of the teacher-participants understandably rises dramatically.
Creativity and the willingness to attack the problem of choosing apt case studies for identifying patterns and processes in world history are two essential attributes of world history teachers; but novice world history teachers cannot be creative and willing to make choices if they are not sure of the direction they need to go. Lacking their own classroom experiences with world history, they often feel uneasy about solving the problem of what they should select as case studies for the larger global processes their students need to analyze. Teachers new to world history need many models and examples from expert world history teachers before they will be ready to be innovators. The conceptual basis of world history seems so different to these novice world history teachers that lots of reassurance and generosity are needed. We who train teachers of world history should see this big picture of the fears that novice world history teachers face, and offer them guidance through our successful syllabi, conceptual approaches, and direct instruction in what is important to focus on in a world history course. With more active support from their more experienced colleagues, these less-than-confident teachers quickly will become the expert world history instructors we want all students to encounter.
—Sharon Cohen teaches Advanced Placement world history and International Baccalaureate history at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. Since 2000, she has organized more than 40 workshops and summer institutes on teaching world history in the United States, Canada, Morocco, and France. She is a frequent presenter at the annual meetings of the American Historical Association and the World History Association. She wrote the College Board’s current Teacher’s Guide for AP World History, edited the College Board publication, Special Focus on Teaching About Latin America and Africa in the Twentieth Century (2007), and has several articles published in the online journal World History Connected.
1. Ane Lintvedt, “The Demography of World History in the United States,” World History Connected 1:1 (November 2003), http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/1.1/lintvedt.html.
2. William H. McNeill, “An Emerging Consensus about World History?” World History Connected 1:1 (2003), http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/whc/1.1/mcneill.html.
5. Eric Lane Martin, “World History as a Way of Thinking,” World History Connected 2:2 (May 2005), http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/2.2/martin.html.