Posted by: Mark | December 17, 2008

In Defense of Thematic World History

I am in my second year of teaching World History. I started my teaching career with American History, the safe softball curriculum that so many adore, switched schools and was given a section of European History, and now I am in my second year of this new field within the discipline. It’s kind of puzzling to students when I explain to them that the history we are studying is in fact pretty new. William McNeill’s The Rise of the West from 1964 is most commonly cited as the first exploration of world history–that is, bucking the academic trend of going into microscopic elements within history but instead looking at unifying themes, trends, and ideas across the planet and time. Since then, it has definitely found its way onto the academic mainstage, with professors (and cool enough, high school teachers as well!) making some pretty solid contributions to its scholarship.

In teaching the History of the World from 1500 to today, the daunting challenge is all about organization. Any good historian who truly loves their craft will confess that content selection is by far the most difficult and painful part of the process of teaching: what do you cover? What do you cut out? Can you make time for this, or that, or do they both need to go? Every summer I struggle with this question, and last summer I decided that for the first time, I was going to teach history outside of chronology and instead be thematic. And now that I’m sitting her proctoring my exam for the first semester of the class and reflecting on how things have been, I’m proud to say that I think it’s been going pretty well.


But first, it’s worth discussing my first two weeks of class. David Christian, one of the leading historians in the “big history movement” has a tidy little book called This Fleeting World, which incredibly enough sums up (in a pretty coherent way!) the history of the world in under 100 pages. I assigned the 30 pages or so that covered the ‘Modern’ world, that from 1500-today, and as a class we spent the first two weeks establishing an agreed-upon timeline of major events from the last 500 years: the creation of the global economy, the industrial revolution and subsequent political revolutions, the world wars, etc, with basic causes and effects. It was a whirlwind pace, but what it did was create a certain degree of chronological literacy for my students.

After the two weeks, we have been plowing through Seven Key Themes of World History. These themes are not my creation, but instead come from World History For Us All, a truly fantastic project put together by Ross Dunn and San Diego State University. They are, in order, and as I word them:

1. Patterns of Population
2. Economic Networks and Exchanges
3. Uses and Abuses of Power
4. Have’s and Have Not’s
5. Identity
6. Science, Tech, and the Environment
7. Spiritual and Moral Codes

Within each unit we adhere to basic chronology, but we span the entire 500 years. For example, in Unit 2 on Economic Networks and Exchanges, we covered the silver trade of the 1600s, imperialism, and free vs. fair trade of the 20th century, just to name a few.

In general, I think that this approach has gone very well, and it’s a real pleasure for me to see my students make cross-continental and cross-century analogies and references in an informed way. As a teacher with a penchant for story-telling, I feel that a cheap gimmick I used to rely on was to constantly leave me kids with cliff-hangers. Me: “Well kids, if you think that was bad, wait till we get to WWII!” Kids: “Wow, we can’t wait!” etc etc. Now I need to challenge myself away from those tactics, and instead I get to revel in watching kids make the connections themselves.

I was inspired to do some bragging because the in-class essay that they’re writing now is really fun, and I think quite revealing of how a thematic approach allows educational opportunities that would be lost in a traditional chronological curriculum. We have finished our unit on Power, and who better to explore than Machiavelli in such a context. Now typically in a traditional classroom, Machiavelli would be brought up in the context of the Renaissance, and so when introduced teachers would have to pull from relatively obscure Europeans leaders from that time period to serve as examples. They may make reference to contemporary leaders, but you can’t talk much about Stalin, Mao, or Hitler because you haven’t covered that material yet, and don’t want to overwhelm them with information from another unit.

For me, I’m getting essays back that are totally sweet. Kids have to critique Machiavelli: Is he right that one can be a more effective leader by being feared rather than being loved? They have to draw from at least 3 different leaders throughout the past to prove their point, with requirements of course. But I’m hearing about Stalin, FDR, Lincoln, Gandhi, MLK, General Patton, Saddam Hussein, and the list goes on and on. Now that is cool, and that is good historical understanding, and just good critical thinking in general. And so I’m siked. I get to go off to my holiday break with a good feeling in my tummy that the curriculum is going well, that the risk of doing History in a thematic way was well worth it.



  1. I really like the idea of narrating history by way of themes. The biggest problem I’ve seen in the manner that history is usually taught is that other cultures, the poor, minorities, women, and the otherwise marginalized were simply ignored and pushed aside in the wake of “the History of Great White Men”. The Have and Have-Nots category might help fix that a little, although I think it could be chased even further.

    I’d love to hear more about this!

  2. Maybe if you were my HS History teacher I wouldn’t have dozed off so much. Sounds like a really interesting curriculum!

  3. I wish I could have learned history this way. I was so bothered with memorizing the details but always yearned for a broader context, a way to connect these dots myself. What a worthy challenge for smart children, to learn to understand these themes across time and consequently apply historical facts to support or contradict them.

  4. I would love to learn more about Mark’s experience with a thematic approach to world history. I am going to make the switch this summer and your comments inspired me!

    Anything else to offer would be wonderful! Curriculum map, lesson plans, etc.


  5. Great to hear about your non-linear navigation process and the ways in which your students have critically engaged within this model, too. I’m puzzling out similar challenges in teaching history of experimental cinema, and am inspired to move forward with a thematic approach this upcoming semester! Thanks for the insight

  6. Hey, found your blog randomly through a google search about teaching history thematically and love what you’ve written about. This will be my first year teaching and I think teaching history thematically makes way more sense and offers more possibilities for really engaging students. However, I’m a little nervous that I would be doing myself a disservice by trying to tackle this my first year because there are so few resources to pull from. World History for Us All is an amazing resource, but I don’t know anyone teaching it thematically to talk to. Just wondering if you have any more resources you might be willing to share (books to look at, websites, a syllabus/overview of your year, etc.). Anything would be wonderful. Thanks!

    • I teach thematically, email me at

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