Too Much World History?

teachers around a table
Shennan Hutton talks to 10th Grade World History Teachers from the Kern High School District (January 2019)

Last week I received a very thoughtful and intelligent email from a 7th grade teacher, who asked the CHSSP, as the authors of the framework, why we added content to the already overloaded Grade 7 curriculum.  In philosophical and practical terms, she explained the incompatibility between the inquiry method and a curriculum packed with content.  She drew on her 30 years of experience in the classroom to argue for less content and more inquiry, which she and her team had already implemented.  Since I was the principal author of the Grade 7 chapter of the framework, I was the one from our organization who sent her the complete answer that her compelling argument desired.  I thought you might be interested in that answer.  Here goes:

"You are entirely correct that the framework adds to an already overcrowded curriculum for 7th grade, which is inherently incompatible with the inquiry approach.  However, the chapter recommends that teachers select among the content rather than trying to cover it.  I’ve been teaching world history for years at both the secondary and college levels.  That experience confirmed for me that it is impossible to cover the content of world history.  My intention was more to reorganize the material covered in the standards and bring that material up-to-date.  I’m sure you have noticed that while there are additions to the content in the framework chapter, some content has also been eliminated, particularly on the substandards.  The content that was added – on Persia, India, the Mongols, Sikhism, etc. – I judged to be essential.

In no way do I or the California History-Social Science Project want you to sacrifice inquiry for the sake of covering more content.  We are trying to encourage more inquiry.  However, our inquiry model does not center on students choosing their own questions.  Instead, the framework specifies investigative questions that teachers give to students along with primary sources.  I am recommending that teachers choose one or maybe two questions from each unit to use as a focus for the entire unit, or as a question for an inquiry project.  Rather than covering every culture, teachers can select one and do an in-depth case study to illuminate a larger world history pattern.  Teachers can and should write their own inquiry questions.  The framework is a guide to questions of historical significance. 

As you know, we world historians have been engaged for decades in the long-term project of transitioning from a western civilization curriculum to a true world history curriculum.  What you and I learned about the world in the period between 300 and 1750, particularly how to frame the history of the world, is now completely outdated.  The framework is our attempt to bring the world history taught in the K-12 schools in line with current historical thinking at the university level.   That means not merely new content, but new ways of framing and understanding the big concepts of world history.  For example, from the point of view of the whole world, was the Middle Ages a period where literature, education, and cultural development had diminished?  Maybe that was true of Europe (although most historians would not agree) but it was certainly not true in China, India, and the Muslim and Maya worlds.  Was the biggest change in the world in the 15th century the Renaissance, or was it the reconnection of the hemispheres?  Historians now approach the early modern period through the ways in which the major world cultures and powers – China, India, the Egyptian/North African Muslim kingdoms, the Ottoman Empire, Europe, the Aztecs and Incas – interacted with each other and borrowed from each other.  I encourage you to re-read the Grade 7 chapter not as additional content, but as a reframing of the content you already know, with additional content that you should take into consideration."