by Mark Heintz

When I first started teaching, world history at my school largely focused on western civilization through World War II.  As a team, we did a really engaging genocide project at the end of the year that brought up some events post WWII, but we mostly stopped at the dropping of the atomic bomb.

Then we attempted to get a more global perspective.  We added more Indian and Chinese history.  Then Africa.  And then we added events post WWII.  In the end, we pretty much had everything in our world history class.  I mean that literally.  Our curriculum guide was massiveAuthoritative: It felt “official” and told students what they would “learn.”  It mimicked the AP World curriculum guide.  Every day had learning targets and we moved at a rapid pace to cover the topics of the ENTIRE WORLD’S HISTORY in less than a year.

Add to the mix 21st Century skills, SAT focus, and a lot of writing.  It was a very packed course.  As a teacher, I felt good about what we’d created. The course was documented.  It exposed kids to as much of the world’s history as I thought possible.  And, as the class marched through the course, most kids were “successful” by traditional metrics. They took tests and displayed “mastery.”

Yet, I knew something was off. After the year was over and the kids returned from summer, I started asking what they liked or learned from the previous year.  Most kids could barely remember the units we covered.  So, they went from mastery in May to not remembering what the units were.  So, did they learn it?  Was it worth covering everything if they didn’t even remember it?

Thanks to Dan Saken for bringing up this image.  

I’d say no.  My desire to get through everything only led to students putting it in their short-term memories for the test.  Now I’m thinking, who says we have to get through everything?  I, with a team of others teachers, created the course.  But, we created it.  Then felt obligated to cover it.  There was this feeling on our team, and I suspect in all schools, to cover more and to get through everything and add skills and competencies. It’s just too much.

Even as I write this, authoritative curriculum guides like AP are cutting their content. Specifically, AP World History is cutting half of the content. I feel they were finding the same thing that I was: covering topics isn’t learning.  When we attempt to cover every topic, the students have little interest and agency in the course.

Over the last few years, I’ve cut a lot of topics that were in my curriculum; AP and non-AP. And every year I cut something, students do better on “tests,” and interest increased.  I’m able to spend time with topics that students are interested in. Students have time to talk and write about what they feel on the subject.  Because learning is for them, not the prescribed guide I set up for them.

Now what?

I’m starting to view curriculum as a series of open-ended questions.  It can’t be a prescription and a series of outcomes. It has to be an exploration.  If I do it that way, it will be relevant to them because they’ll be exploring what they want to learn.  It will be inquiry-based as they are searching for their understandings.  Finally, it gives students agency over their learning.  In the end, they will read more, write more, talk more, and remember more, since it’ll be about them instead of me.

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