Teaching History Backwards

It might get you fired; it might help your kids.

When it comes to teaching history, the vast majority of educators favor a linear approach: We start at the beginning and move slowly forward. Eventually we end up in the present. We exhale and tell our students, “And that is why the world is the way it is.”

A better method, some teachers argue, is to start with the present and move backwards. It’s a controversial approach that has led to at least one teacher being fired. But advocates argue that it makes a lot of sense. Here’s why:

1. The present world is more “real” and more interesting to students.
Many students who feel that ancient history has no application to their lives are nevertheless interested in the world today. This makes sense. Which is more interesting to you: knowing when the first Korean pottery was made or learning that the U.S. just sent a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to Korea in response to a rocket attack?

A great way of starting a unit (or course) is to ask students to generate a list of their interests and concerns that relate to global issues: racism, AIDS, pollution, wealth, etc. Touching on these topics first and then moving backwards shows the students why they’re learning. Because just as important as teaching history is teaching why history matters.

2. It’s always key to start a lesson with something that captures students’ attention.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher who disagrees. If you don’t grab someone’s attention early on, it’s often hard to get it later. By beginning with interesting current events, students are motivated to keep learning.

An excellent resource for engaging students with current events is The Week in Rap. Every Friday, we produce a free music video covering that week’s major headlines. It can be used as a writing and discussion prompt, or as a reference point for studying history.

3. Students are more likely to ask “why” than “what happened next?”
“Why” is a very natural question. For proof, spend the afternoon with a three-year-old. And a good student (or good historian) is like a detective: constantly trying to uncover causes behind actions and events.

Interested in trying out this approach? Annette Atkins provides details on her backwards lessons. Kenneth Hermann offers some more justification for this method.

On the other hand, some educators believe that this approach should not be used to teach our students. They argue:

1. Events in history move from past to present and should be taught in that order.
Reconstruction did not happen before the Civil War; it happened after. Having students learn out of order is only going to confuse them. In an effort to get them interested in the causality of historical events, they will become confused and frustrated.

2. Teaching history in order provides useful background information and context.
It’s necessary to know about ancient Greece before studying ancient Rome. Without the context, you can never develop a real understanding of an event or culture.

What do you think?

This Post Has One Comment

  1. I appreciate this provocative approach to teaching. Take racism for example, to consider an important contemporary issue well addressed with both contemporary urgency and historical background. I can imagine studying racism today and moving back through our national history and world civilization would help connect the dots much more readily than starting with the pyramids and hoping to get through to the present day by the end of June. Bravo Flo!

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