Themes vs. Timelines

Teaching history through a thematic curriculum fosters a higher level of engagement and critical thinking in young historians.

By Bethany Bodenhamer

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Dates, names, numbers, and places are the facts that young historians are often required to memorize in their various history courses. Therefore, that is generally how and what teachers teach. However, what if there was a more interesting, intriguing, and captivating way to teach these same facts—a way in which students are taught the basics at the same time that they are making connections, discovering themes, and thinking at a higher level? This is all possible by teaching thematically. 

Of course teaching history chronologically seems to be the most logical—start in the beginning of the book, end in the back, and keep the timeline in a nice, neat order. The beauty of teaching thematically is that you actually can follow a chronological order for the majority of your curriculum. There are certain themes where you will find yourself jumping back and forth in time. However, if devised correctly, a semi-chronological thematic curriculum is possible. 

The Benefits of Teaching Thematically

So, how does teaching thematically benefit those involved? First, I believe as an instructor, it is in fact easier to construct your curriculum when you are always coming back to a central theme. Instead of getting caught up in the minute facts of major events, you are forced to teach and discuss the larger picture of such events. When taught this way, I believe it is easier for students to learn. For example, when learning about various wars, they can relate each war back to major themes seen in each struggle. So instead of being caught up in names, dates, and places, they will be forced to discuss appeasement, power, rules of war, and aftermaths, while learning the facts along the way. 

With Common Core and the new way of testing, pupils have to be able to make connections across events and time periods. By teaching them the events in this manner, they will be trained to think in this way. Instead of only being able to answer multiple choice questions, they will be able to devise short and long written answers, analyze and evaluate, and think in a higher, critical level.

How to Teach Thematically

First, you need to investigate your current curriculum and topics of instruction to see what themes you can construct out of what you teach. I suggest you do this step before looking at the examples below. Chances are, you probably already cover many major themes as you teach, so why don’t you just group these events together? Try to cover between five to seven themes for the year. 

Once you have your themes chosen, select sub-themes that you want your young historians to grasp. Concept maps are a great activity to try at the beginning of each unit. Give learners a handout with the word 'war' in the middle. From this, have them branch out everything they think of when hearing the word 'war'. They will probably note ideas such as fighting, blood, death, power, weapons, struggle, winners, losers, etc. From there you can lead them in a discussion as to what three to five of the major themes of war are. Emphasize that you want them to constantly be thinking about these themes as they learn the facts about each individual war. Venn diagrams and other such comparison charts are great tools when teaching thematically. 

When assessing your students, instead of assessing knowledge of specific facts, test your their ability to discuss similarities and differences between events within one theme. Have them make connections between wars, presidents, and social movements. Or, ask learners to analyze peoples’ reactions to different events and discuss the evolution in society as time goes on. This type of learning will benefit your pupils far more than the ability to purely recite names and dates. 

Examples of Themes

Here are two sample thematic curriculums; one for a United States history course, and one for a world history course. As you will notice, these themes keep for the most part in a chronological order, but there are times where they depart from the traditional timeline. I encourage you to see how your curriculum might be able to fall within these themes: 

US History

  1. Foundations and ideologies of the United States 
  2. Westward expansion 
  3. Industrialization and its effects 
  4. War
  5. The African American experience
  6. Decades & cultures

World History

  1. Foundations of democracy
  2. Era of new ideas (Middle Ages to exploration)
  3. Revolutions
  4. Industrialization
  5. Nationalism, imperialism, & war
  6. Decolonization & democratization 

Other Tips for Teaching Thematically

  • Have your pupils keep a timeline throughout the year where they place the major events they have learned about. This will help them visualize the chronological order of events, even if not necessarily taught in this manner. (You can also keep a large timeline in the front of the room, for the class to see). 
  • Instead of choosing different sub-themes for each individual theme, chose 5-10 major sub-themes for the whole year that you can relate all events back to. Suggestions: power, money, religion, politics, etc. 

Other Lesson Planet Resources:

Concept Map Conception

A concept map is a great way to begin a teaching a new unit or theme. With this simple, step-by-step worksheet, your class will begin to connect ideas and notice themes within your assigned concept. Have your pupils work individually, in groups, and moderate a whole-class discussion to receive a comprehensive idea of your historians’ prior knowledge as well as themes they are beginning to create in their minds. 

Exploring War Themes in Art & Poetry

This activity is a great example of a lesson plan that can be taught within a thematic curriculum. Not only are your learners analyzing historical themes within war, but they are connecting such themes to another subject entirely, by studying art. The cross and connections across subject matters is excellent training for the Common Core. 

American History Timeline 

A large concern of many teachers prior to attempting a thematic curriculum is that their pupils will not be able to grasp the chronological sequence of history. This does not have to be a worry as historians can complete timeline activities within a thematic curriculum to help visualize the order of events. Use this lesson plan to organize events within an American History unit.