Not Your Grandfather’s U.S. History Class: Abandoning Chronology and Teaching Thematically

Russell C. Brown and Stephen C. Schell

We can no longer teach U.S. history in 180 days as we have in the past. The current chronological approach is not only outdated but totally unrealistic. One problem centers on teachers running out of time and barely touching on events such as the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War before the school year ends. Events of the 1970s and 1980s may be recent history for some teachers, but they are as remote to current high school students as the Civil War and World War I. A second problem exists as more and more history accumulates each year. More than half a century of events has transpired since the first wave of the baby boomers left school in the 1960s. However, their grandchildren are required to learn that material in the same 180 days (see figure 1). A third problem with the chronological approach is that it has not resulted in knowledge retention. Testing students to see what they know about U.S. history can be traced back to 1917 and over this timespan test results have basically stayed the same; students continually struggle to answer half of the questions on the exams. Clearly the traditional chronological approach has not yielded deeper historical understanding of our nation and something needs to change.(1)

Table showing all of the additional information that been added to US History classes since 1965

A thematic approach to teaching U.S. history potentially eliminates the issue of failing to study events from the recent past. Instead of pursuing a linear scope and sequence that might not go beyond the origins of the Cold War, students go from the past to the present multiple times as different themes are covered throughout the class. For example, if students thematically study a unit on immigration, they will be exposed to the debates over assimilation, tolerance, and immigration policy throughout our history. As a result, they can draw parallels between the Know Nothing party of the 1840s, nineteenth century immigration policies, the Red Scare and fear of anarchist immigrants after World War I, and the contemporary debate over immigration. Simply put, a thematic approach enables students to see the historical roots of contemporary events, adds relevance to the material being covered, and brings the past alive in a way that the chronological approach fails to do.(2)

In addition to having students learn about recent events, utilizing a thematic approach abandons the encyclopedic nature of the traditional chronological framework where content is covered a mile-wide but only an inch deep. Rather than merely “covering” material to say it was done, teachers can help students develop a deeper understanding of the past. This understanding and insight can then aid in retention of the material and hopefully reverse the long-standing trend of students forgetting what they learned (or more accurately, have not learned) in their U.S. history classes. At least one Advanced Placement (AP) teacher has used a thematic approach in her classes and has seen a strong correlation between improvement on her student’s AP examination scores and teaching within a thematic framework.(3)

Barriers to Using a Thematic Approach
Implementing a thematic approach, however, can present some pitfalls for U.S. history educators. It means abandoning the chapter-by-chapter approach in the textbook in favor of an approach where students will be skipping around and going back-and-forth. The paradigm of using the textbook as some sort of “holy book” that is the ultimate source of knowledge will need to be relinquished in favor of viewing the textbook as one of many resources that students will need to consult when researching the past. Certainly, a move beyond the comfortable confines of the textbook can be disconcerting to some teachers. Yet if social studies teachers want history to come alive for their students, abandoning the comfortable confines of the textbook and its adherence to chronology is necessary. Furthermore, students will recognize change over time more readily as information is brought up to the present at numerous times throughout the year, not just in the last few weeks of the semester, if at all.(4)

To accomplish repeatedly bringing information to the present, teachers must be willing to have students use the textbook in an asynchronous manner. Schools with laptops may find this easier as teachers can generate webquests and other activities where the students do research online. Also, the use of primary sources can be enhanced if the chronological approach is abandoned. For instance, if students are studying immigration, a speech from the Know Nothings of the mid-nineteenth century can be compared and contrasted with a speech from Donald Trump who likewise advocates immigration restriction.(5)

Another concern that teachers may have about using a thematic approach centers on standards. Some teachers, especially those in states where part of a teacher’s evaluation is based on how students perform on exit exams, may be reluctant to abandon the traditional chronological approach out of fear that it would lead to lower student test scores. However, such fears are not grounded in reality. As previously mentioned, the traditional chronological approach has not resulted in adequate retention of historical information. Furthermore, the Common Core standards, as they relate to social studies, are skills based, which means the traditional chronological approach presents no real advantage over the thematic approach. Even the National Council on Social Studies has applied a thematic approach to its standards.(6) Clearly the concern over standards should not be a barrier for teachers wishing to implement a thematic approach in their classrooms.

The use of a thematic approach does not mean chronology has to be abandoned entirely. However, it will need to take on a different form. One way this can be accomplished is by having students place events on both a personal and a large classroom timeline. As events are identified and addressed, they should immediately be placed on the timelines. Using this technique, historical materials are kept in sight from day to day as the unit progresses. Each unit can be identified by a separate color so that events related to the topic are easily recognizable on the larger classroom timeline.

Selecting Themes to Organize the Course
Once a high school social studies teacher decides to employ a thematic approach, the question arises as to what themes to use. Mary Connor suggests eight themes including “The American Character and the American Belief System”; “Making a New Start: The Immigrant Experience”; and “War and Peace.” Rodney White likewise has eight themes including “The American Character”; “The Best of Times—The Worst of Times”; and “Modern America.” In the AP U.S. history curriculum, the College Board has identified seven themes within a chronological structure. Among these themes are “Identity”; “Politics and Power”; and “Ideas, Beliefs, and Culture.”(7) A constitutionally-minded teacher could utilize the principles found in the Preamble as a source for themes, resulting in units centering on “Forming a More Perfect Union”; “Providing for the Common Defense”; and “Promoting the General Welfare.” While there is potentially some overlap with the themes a teacher could use, there may be many differences as well. If someone asked a hundred historians to identify the key themes in United States history, there will likely be a hundred different answers along with conflicting ideas on how many of those themes should be included in the class. Regardless which themes are selected, it is incumbent for the teacher to make the themes clear and understandable for the students at the beginning of the course and to consistently refer back to them as the class progresses.

The traditional chronological framework for teaching United States history has been utilized since the 1920s. The primary problem with using this approach is that almost 100 years of history has passed since then and people expect that history will be taught in the same 180 days. This approach has never resulted in, nor will it result in, citizens who remember and understand their nation’s history. Only by implementing a thematic approach in U.S. history classes can history be presented in a way that will be meaningful to and better remembered by students. Using a thematic framework will not only provide students with a structure to categorize and learn about events from our nation’s past, but it will also allow them to acquire an ability to evaluate contemporary events, political issues, and debates relative to our basic values.

RUSSELL C. BROWN teaches history, economics, and humanities at Poudre High School (Fort Collins, CO). He was honored as the Outstanding Teacher of American History by the Colorado NSDAR in 2014.

STEPHEN C. SCHELL is retired from teaching United States history and humanities at Poudre High School (Fort Collins, CO) and humanities for Regis University. He is the author of the monographs Following John C. Fremont’s Trail through Northern Colorado, 1843 (2010) and Older than Mash: A Look Back at the 64th Field Hospital in World War II (2001). He continues to contribute to the historical work of others.

(1) Mary E. Connor, “Teaching United States History Thematically,” Social Education, 61 (no. 4, 1997), 203. Rodney M. White, “A Modest Proposal for Course Design and Delivery,” OAH Magazine of History, 14 (Fall 1999), 57. Rodney M. White, “How Thematic Teaching Can Transform History Instruction,” The Clearing House, 68 (Jan.–Feb. 1995), 160. Richard J. Paxton, “Don’t Know Much about History—Never Did,” Phi Delta Kappan, 85 (Dec. 2003), 266–68. Sam Wineburg, “Crazy for History,” Journal of American History, 90 (March 2004), 1402–3.

(2) Connor, “Teaching United States History Thematically,” 203–4. Mary E. Connor, “The Role of the Immigrant in United States History: A Thematic Approach,” Social Education, 62 (Nov.–Dec. 1998), 421–22.

(3) White, “How Thematic Teaching Can Transform History Instruction,” 160–61. White, “A Modest Proposal for Course Design and Delivery,” 57–58. Connor, “The Role of the Immigrant in United States History,” 421.

(4) Connor, “Teaching United States History Thematically,” 203–4.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Common Core State Standards Initiative, “English Language Arts Standards—History/Social Studies—Grade 11–12,” accessed Dec. 9, 2015, Syd Golston, “The Revised NCSS Standards: Ideas for the Classroom Teacher,” Social Education, 74 (no. 4, 2010), 210–16.

(7) Connor, “Teaching United States History Thematically,” 203. White, “A Modest Proposal for Course Design and Delivery,” 58–59. College Board, AP United States History: Course and Exam Description Including the Curriculum Framework (2014), 20.