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Three Things You Need to Know About Teaching U.S. History From a Global Perspective

by guest blogger Craig Perrier

While on the surface, it may seem that U.S. history is one of the least global of all subject areas, America's past is inextricably tied to that of other nations. Craig Perrier, High School Social Studies Specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools, shares three things you need to know about teaching our history in a global context.

Recent trends in education have called for globalizing American education through 21st century teaching and learning. A common outcome of this is to develop student skillsets and nurture habits of mind that are meaningful to the current and future realities, contexts, and interconnectedness of the world. In turn, these attributes are designed to be transferable beyond the classroom in preparation for students' academic and career pathways.

Congruently, the shift in pedagogy and educational models coincides with efforts in the history profession to internationalize the United States history survey course. The La Pietra Report (2000) outlines the charge for educators in grades K-16 to do so: "We believe that there is a general societal need for such enlarged historical understanding of the United States. We hope that the history curriculum at all levels, not only in colleges and universities but also in the K-12 levels will address itself to these issues."

Combined, these two paradigm shifts have yielded a range of scholarship, curriculum frameworks, and content resources that facilitate implementation of global education in school. The International Baccalaureate's history courses, specifically the History of the Americas curriculum, promote a regional context and emphasize a constructivist approach to U.S. history. Additionally, The College Board's recent revision of the Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) course embraces 21st century educational demands. The addition of historical thinking skills and thematic learning objectives requires student engagement with historical content and assesses their ability to demonstrate understanding of U.S. history with complexity. Thematic Learning Objective 5 of the revised AP U.S. history course, "America in the World", is an explicit embrace of the La Pietra Report's call to globalize the U.S. history survey. It states that "students should focus on the global context in which the United States originated and developed as well as the influence of the United States on world affairs."

If you are a teacher, administrator, or educator-in-training, here are three "Need to Know" essentials of teaching and learning about U.S. history in this era of globalization.

Need to Know #1: Globalization changes education.

Globalization challenges us to reflect upon established educational theory, as well as rethink our outcomes and pedagogy. Specific to social studies and history, globalization suggests the need for alternative narratives beyond the traditional national contexts that have dominated the field for generations. A sincere engagement with global perspectives in the high school curriculum brings opportunities for educators to rethink their craft and impact student understanding of their contemporary and future realities.

Conceptions of one's personal identity, culture, and history are reinforced as natural phenomenon bestowed upon citizens at birth. This generates a feeling of "American-ness" or "French-ness" or "Chinese-ness" that we use to understand both ourselves and "others" in the world. In turn, beliefs about "authentic Thai food" and "pure Spanish experiences" which reinforce simplified, stereotypical qualities are taught as cultural packages passed on through genetics, which we can't alter. I argue that being able to think with complexity and depth about the social constructs of identity and culture is a 21st century college and career readiness skill. In addition, these are competencies transferable beyond the social studies classroom and essential to understanding a networked world of systems and which produce a fusion of cultural identities.

Need to Know #2: Globalizing U.S. history illuminates the limitations and benefits of using the nation-state as a way of teaching about the past.

Take a look at a world map, and what do you see? A common reply labels our planet as a puzzle of nations pieced together by contiguous, interlocking, distinct borders. Each piece of the puzzle seems to be its own little world, structured and organized with certain unique people, places, landforms, ideas, and "ways of life." The borders that connect them, although not physical lines, are recognized borders of identity, government, and culture. In turn, each of these pieces acts as a self-contained package, neatly understood and categorized in our worldview that we could title "Earth-nation-puzzle."

An educational outcome of this worldview is the production of national history narratives. Courses on one's nation, often required for graduation, are pillars of contemporary educational models. This is not a bad thing. It is however, in an era of global interconnectedness, limiting. As stated above, Thematic Learning Objective 5 of "America in the World" expands students' historical context about U.S. history. By using a comparative approach, and situating the United States in transnational and regional contexts, understanding the past is not limited by a nation's constructed boundaries. Dr. Peter Stearns, a longtime proponent of global approaches to history, notes that "a more global framework creates new perspectives, and some fresh challenges, making American history a livelier experience." 

Need to Know #3: Targeted professional development is essential.
A globalized world is complex to understand, navigate, and predict. Functioning in these diverse contexts require teachers to be nimble and informed practitioners who can meet the needs of students. Preparing students first requires building teachers' capacity. Providing content resources and highlighting pedagogical information for a globalized era are apt to enact change in the classroom. One of these professional development opportunities was developed by the National Council for History Education (NCHE) and the Longview Foundation. Their resource provides five free, self-paced, online modules to inform and build the capacity of U.S. history teachers, pre-service teachers, professors, and administrators. The project celebrates teacher creativity, agency, leadership, and content expertise.

Globalizing the U.S. history survey involves an opening of students' conceptions of the past through expanded content, broader methodology, and units of analysis that go beyond the nation. Preparing history teachers to globalize the curriculum will be integral to the success of students in this globalized era.

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