Let’s face it, at first glance the AP World History curriculum is a monster. We are charged with the study of the history of the entire world in only one year and usually with students who are only starting out their academic careers as nascent historians. It’s a daunting task.
Having attended Project Zero Classroom at Harvard this summer, I have begun to overhaul my teaching practice to focus on understanding, and not coverage of material. You can read more about those concepts over at my professional portfolio site.
To make matters worse, the AP World History course (WHAP) has been undergoing edits and changes over the last few years since I last taught the course in 2013-2014. These are minor changes that affect mostly the administration of the exam in May, but they do change how you approach the course. It is a bit confounding and akin to wrestling a python in the Amazon – no, I do not speak from experience and hope never to do so unless the outcome is massively positive.
The AP history courses are being tightened into alignment with each other – AP Euro, AP US, and AP World in particular. They are being looked at, finally, as “sandboxes” to apply historical thinking skills. These are habits of mind used by historians to study, think, and interpret the past. The different “flavors” that that are doing so with are the courses themselves and their content.
So, where does that leave the study of world history? I took a look at the skill side of things and broke those down into overarching goals or throughlines to give students a focal point on what they are trying to do over the course of the year (and in future years with their subsequent AP courses).
The AP history course is broken down into two basic parts – disciplinary practices (unique to history) and historical reasoning skills. As the now former department chair for Social Sciences and Humanities at my school, this is something that I was trying to get us to think about and institute up and down our hall. College Board has been doing the same thing and we see this trend in other areas of the discipline (Stanford History Education Group is one notable example). I took these two components of the historical thinking and simplified them.
For example, if you refer to p. 9 of the current Course and Exam Description (CED) for WHAP, it will give you a table with two practices (Practice 1: Analyzing Historical Evidence and Practice 2: Argument Development) under the disciplinary practices and four skills (Contextualization, Comparison, Causation, and Continuity and Change Over Time) under the reasoning skills. Each of these are broken down into statements that show what the students should be able to do and be assessed on.
Whew! It’s a lot. How to make sense of it? By crafting these into overarching goals for understanding as statements and questions.
For example, for Practice 1: Analyzing Historical Evidence I crafted the following:
- How do I study the past? Students will develop historical analysis skills that focus on reading, analyzing and interpreting text, quantitative data, visual resources, and artifacts.
For Practice 2: Argument Development, I simplified it thus:
- How do I develop interpretations of the past using evidence effectively? Students will understand the importance of argument development skills when constructing interpretations of past events.
Finally, for the four historical reasoning skills:
- How do I think “historically” about the past? Students will understand the habits of mind historians use when they approach the events of the past in a critical way.
Now, instead of horrifying my students with that chart I can have these throughlines posted in our daily work somewhere to help orient the students as to what their purpose is. This also helps me stay focused on the big picture. The next step is to untangle the various references to concepts and themes and how those affect these throughlines!