Teaching World History: The Global Human Experience
through Time. ERIC Digest.
by Arias, Simone - Hitchens, Marilynn - Roupp, Heidi
World history is the study of human history around the globe through
time. World history stretches beyond the boundaries of nation-states or
civilizations to form a macro history of the human story. Just as the history
of the United States is more than the history of 50 individual states,
world history is the study of the global human experience and changes in
that experience through time.
World historians study global forces and large historical themes such
as climatic change, the spread of religions, and the expansion of the market
economy. For example, Columbus in world history is not simply the story
of Columbus discovering a "new world." Instead it is the "Columbian exchange,"
a story of human migrations, transatlantic trade, and the exchange of plants,
animals, diseases, art, and technology between the eastern and western
hemispheres. World history enables us to improve our understanding of how
humans have interacted with each other and the planet in the past to shape
World history became an established field of study with the founding
by historians and educators of the World History Association in 1982. This
field is in its infancy. Scholarship in world history, as in biological
research, is expanding rapidly because of international, collaborative
research via the Internet; the increasing number of resources available
to world historians; and cross-disciplinary studies with anthropologists,
archaeologists, geographers, and others in the social sciences. Globalization
of the market economy and the development of the international "pop" culture
with its bewildering amalgam of many cultural traditions have increased
the demand for world history. Yet much remains to be learned. And that
is the excitement of world history. When world history class becomes a
laboratory where teachers and students form a partnership to investigate
what is known to question the unknown, the study of the human story escalates
from passive memorization to inquiry and discovery.
WHY WORLD HISTORY IN THE SCHOOL CURRICULUM?
Each age writes its own history. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries
were periods of Western influence in politics, economics, and culture.
The twenty-first century, however, will belong to world politics, economics,
and culture. Consequently, a new history of the world and its people is
Why should this new story be told? Why should it be at the core of the
school curriculum? There are many reasons, which pertain to:
* citizenship -- creating a body of informed citizens capable of making
global decisions for the world body politic at large;
* business -- understanding the economic, cultural, and political environment
of many countries in order to participate more fully and effectively in
the global market place;
* humanity -- thinking more deeply and broadly about the whole human
experience rather than its provincial parts as a means of deeper and broader
* patterns of thought -- developing historical thinking skills; and
* basic knowledge -- understanding who we are, how we got that way,
and where we are going.
In our interconnected world, the need to share a common history as well
as a particular one is a global phenomenon that involves us all. A history
of the world experience, as well as the national and local experience,
can provide a forum through which, aided by the study of world history,
we develop common ideas that transcend cultural and political boundaries.
MAJOR THEMES AND HABITS OF MIND FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING WORLD HISTORY
Certain universal historical themes shape the common human experience.
Bound by neither time nor space, they appear broadly across the globe and
centuries. These themes form the basis of world history. They include:
* manipulating and changing the physical environment;
* developing tools and technology;
* peopling the globe;
* diffusing and exchanging ideas, tools, and other facets of culture;
* ending old frontiers and developing new ones; and
* creating increasingly more complex systems of politics, economics,
and social interactions.
The study of world history develops certain habits of mind needed by
individuals to function in a twenty-first century world of interaction,
diversity, and rapid change. These habits of mind include:
* seeing the big picture;
* discerning the common phenomena;
* identifying the spread, exchange, and acceptance or rejection of new
* making sound historical comparisons; and
* collaborative testing of an historical hypothesis from multiple points
TEACHER PREPARATION AND INSTRUCTIONAL STRATEGIES
Teacher preparation in world history must involve strategies to expand
both teacher expertise as well as the knowledge base of students. Given
the lack of world history preparation of most students (secondary and post-secondary)
and the narrow focus of world history in most teacher preparation programs,
exploring a comprehensive world history requires research and reflection
by instructors and students alike.
Redefining the relationship of teachers and students as a partnership
facilitates this educational process. Most social studies teachers started
their teaching careers with course work in Western civilization or area
studies. Teaching a global world history, however, requires reconceptualization
of the subject. Together the class can examine both common themes and the
uniqueness of societies within a chronological framework constructed for
A study of world history must encompass both breadth and depth. Most
courses focus either narrowly and deeply or broadly and shallowly. A cross
section of the two is possible through class lectures and discussions around
broad social, political, economic, or cultural themes integrated with focus
groups in which students can examine various regions of the world in depth
to learn how themes have unfolded during specified eras. This preserves
a sense of chronology of events and movements over time, yet also allows
for comparisons of societies in different eras or in different regions
as the course proceeds. Inquiry is grounded in historical knowledge placed
in a broader context.
This structure serves several purposes. First, it makes the overwhelming
subject of world history more manageable for students and teachers, particularly
with the limitations of time restraints in any course. Second, it reduces
the chance of a "one fact after another" approach where students are challenged
merely to recall isolated facts covered in the textbook and the teacher
lectures without a clear sense of what those facts mean. Third, it promotes
critical thinking, a necessity in a democratic system. Discerning fact
from opinion and identifying multiple perspectives in cross-cultural encounters
are desirable outcomes of instruction in our increasingly interconnected
world. Fourth, themes provide a framework for reading for meaning and for
the relevance of historical topics. Learning information simply because
it is in the textbook does not motivate today's students to become competent,
or even interested, in world history. Fifth, the approach can incorporate
the wealth of resources available through technology. Using these resources
can greatly enhance textbook information, but students must be taught simultaneously
how to discriminate between reliable and unreliable resources.
Acquainting students with human history is a daunting task. The overwhelming
assignment can be made more manageable, however, if one provides for in-depth
regional studies set in the context of a wider realm of human experience.
This de-centered approach promotes comparative studies, multiple perspectives
including voices of women and minorities, and a more comprehensive understanding
of human and environmental events. Analyzing the effects of the past on
contemporary life and recognizing the problems of present-minded thinking
and the limits of our own perspectives will promote competency in historical
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