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Teaching History: Backwards or Forward?

Is one way of teaching history better than another?  Will students better understand history if it is taught within a modern context?  Is cause and effect important when teaching history concepts?

As my teaching partner and I sat down to map out our lesson plans for the start of 2014, my mind was floating in a sea of ideas.  How do we teach an abbreviated history of Europe?  Is it important to cover everything?  Since we only have about three weeks as our window of opportunity, we clearly can’t teach everything.  So, what’s important?  As there are many books published on this particular topic, there is no right or wrong answer here.  What do we deem as vital in the whole scheme of European history?  What do we want our students to take away from this section of our unit on Europe?  We pondered these questions for several minutes before we decided on a path.  As we want to incorporate the writing of myths into the curriculum, we decided on using Greek history as a starting point.  Problem solved.  Lesson planning is D for done, right?

Little did we know, there are several vehicles for the instruction of this material.  Do we choose a current event in modern Greece and trace its roots back through time to determine cause and effect?  Do we start at the beginning and work towards modern day Greece?  Or do we pick and choose random aspects of Greek history to discuss?  Is one way better than the others?

Does history need to be taught sequentially?  Should we start with the three main civilizations in Greece and move forward or start with the now and move backwards?  This seems to be a question for which there may be no answer.  So, we reflect on our students and think about how we can best meet their needs in order to cover the content in a meaningful manner.  They seem to enjoy the ideas of early civilizations and ancient history.  So, starting from the beginning and working forward may better build a sense of engagement within our boys.  We decide to leave the idea of teaching history backwards for another concept in our Europe unit.  While we want to try out this method of teaching history at some point in the year, we feel that it will not best convey the material with which we want our students to engage, now.  So, we will teach history forward this time.

Perhaps we made the wrong selection.  It’s hard to know.  However, we didn’t blindly come to this decision.  We put our curriculum into context and tried to empathize with our students, which is all we can do.  As we dig into ancient Greece, we will of course pause and reflect on the method in which we teach the content to determine if one way may be better than another.  Who knows, maybe we’ll mix things up the next time we teach this unit because of what we learn when we cover it this time around.  As least we know we didn’t close our eyes and throw our lesson planning dart at choices scribbled on the wall.  However, this may not be a bad idea the next time we plan a unit.  Yeah, and after that we’ll go to Vegas and gamble it all on number 17.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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