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Proposed Social Studies Standards View History as One Darn Thing After Another, Deny Merits of Teaching Relevance Through Themes

The proposed social studies standards that Governor Kristi Noem commissioned Hillsdale College to write for South Dakota’s K-12 schools include ten “Guiding Principles for High Quality Standards” (see pp. 4–5), a set of standards for writing curriculum standards. One of the assertions of this brief manifesto is that we must teach social studies, particularly history, in chronological order to reduce ideological bias:

Social studies standards should follow the natural order of historical events, moving chronologically as the events actually unfolded. Themes emerge from this chronology instead of being imposed upon it as an artificial lens through which students must learn. A chronological movement through history results in standards that make it easier for teachers to organize their lessons, give students a strong sense of how, when, and why things happened in history, and resist the temptation to cherry-pick facts to fit a preconceived ideology or narrative [South Dakota Department of Education, proposed K-12 social studies standards, 2022.08.15, p. 4].

I majored in history at SDSU, but I’ve never had the pleasure of teaching history full-time. I necessarily worked history into the activities in which I led students when I taught and coached debate, literature, composition, and French. I never felt compelled to present historical events in strict chronological order, any more than I felt compelled to have students read the novels and plays and poems I’d assign throughout the high school English curriculum in order of the years in which they were published. Students read The Outsiders before Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath before All Quiet on the Western Front, and all of those before Hamlet, and students seemed none the worse for wear discussing 1960s culture before the Depression, both before World War I, and all of that before the Shakespeare’s cultural context of Elizabethan England.

I recall the chronological approach to history in my K-12 social studies classes: a little talk about ancient civilizations, then the hard slog through Columbus and the other explorers, colonization of America, the Revolution, and on from war to war until we inevitably ran out of time before getting to the second half of the 20th century. History’s only gotten longer since Tom Osterberg labored mightily through the pronunciations of coureurs des bois to the Pax Americana, so it’s harder for Bob Cordts to get to Iraq, 9/11, the Great Recession, and coronavirus than it was for Osterberg to get to Korea and Vietnam.

I have thus often wondered if history teachers might do our kids a service by working backwards: start history classes with the events that are happening right now, the things students hear about in the news. Why did we shoot shredder missiles at some guy in Afghanistan? Why is Russia invading Ukraine? Why do we hear Congress and the President talk about making more computer chips in America—don’t we make our own computers? Why isn’t Trump in prison? Studying such questions of immediate historical importance requires first getting straight on the facts of current events so we know what we’re talking about, then looking back at the events that led to what we hear in today’s news—American and Russian adventures in Afghanistan; the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, NATO, World War II, and a millennium of Russian history; globalization, Steve Jobs, and China’s capitalized communism; Trump’s term in the White House, the 2016 election, and the precedents of Watergate. Students might learn as much about history if we structured a history class around current headlines and dug backwards through relevant past events as they do in the traditional chronological format proposed by the Hillsdale standards.

The proposed standards claim to allow themes to “emerge” naturally through chronology rather than through an “artificial lens” “imposed upon” history by teachers whom the standards claim to respect but whom the standards suspect will “cherry-pick facts to fit a preconceived ideology or narrative” absent the chains of time. But the chronological approach, while widespread, is itself an artificial lens, a choice made by teachers who assume that the natural flow of time dictates the flow of teaching. The fact that something is natural does not make it right.

Educators worldwide debate the merits of teaching history chronologically versus thematically. Focusing on big themes, supported by dipping into diverse times and places, may be just as useful as leading students through timelines. Colorado history teachers Russell C. Brown and Stephen C. Schell say the thematic approach helps students connect past events to present issues:

A thematic approach to teaching U.S. history potentially eliminates the issue of failing to study events from the recent past. Instead of pursuing a linear scope and sequence that might not go beyond the origins of the Cold War, students go from the past to the present multiple times as different themes are covered throughout the class. For example, if students thematically study a unit on immigration, they will be exposed to the debates over assimilation, tolerance, and immigration policy throughout our history. As a result, they can draw parallels between the Know Nothing party of the 1840s, nineteenth century immigration policies, the Red Scare and fear of anarchist immigrants after World War I, and the contemporary debate over immigration. Simply put, a thematic approach enables students to see the historical roots of contemporary events, adds relevance to the material being covered, and brings the past alive in a way that the chronological approach fails to do [Russell C. Brown and Stephen C. Schell, “Not Your Grandfather’s U.S. History Class: Abandoning Chronology and Teaching Thematically,” Organization of American Historians: The American Historian, 2016].

We need not view the chronological and thematic approaches from an either-or perspective; both have merit, and both combined can produce good learning outcomes. In rejecting the thematic approach and asserting the primacy of the chronological approach, the Hillsdale standards impose an artificial and potentially unproductive lens on South Dakota’s social studies curriculum. By treating history as merely one darn thing after another, to be recited in the same order every time we cover cover it, the proposed standards deny teachers valid methods by which to help students learn history more effectively.

Related Reading: The current K-12 social studies standards call for students to “analyze how major events are chronologically connected and evaluate their impact on one another.” But that standard is just one of 23 “anchor standards”, not a “principle” cited to dictate the composition of all standards and history teaching. The current standards leave plenty of room for the thematic approach, which research suggests fits better with the way we learn:

The view that the thematic approach is more appropriate to learning theories than the chronological approach is basically based on the new findings on learning and memory. There are two ways in which the human brain can remember new information: memorization and meaning-making (linking with other information). The first of these, the information obtained through memorization is less persistent and the acquisition of this information is not accepted by many contemporary educational scientists as learning. According to contemporary learning theories, the human brain creates a complex network of connections (schema) between newly acquired knowledge and related information. In this process, information is connected to the old and relevant information and increases exponentially. The thematic approach allows students to see these connections by addressing many similar events and phenomena around a central theme (Hopkins, Peters, & Schubeck, 1995, p. 633). Teaching with themes chosen from among the common concepts and events that students encounter in daily life could increase the probability of remembering new information (Proust phenomenon) as well as provide meaningful learning that focuses on the main ideas, in other words, the big picture.

Besides the association, the effect of narrative on memory should be discussed as well. In a thematic approach, events that occurred in different times and regions are taught interconnected. Contrary to what the chronological approach claims, the sequential arrangement of events is not a system that makes it easier to remember. Because often the only thing these events share in common is that they occur one after the other. Although the story told in the thematic approach is temporally and spatially disconnected, it still develops around a certain theme. In the thematic approach, a more familiar narrative is used which is arranged in the order of introduction, body, and conclusion with a certain beginning and end. This approach increases the likelihood of recalling historical knowledge with the exception of the date and maybe the sequence of events [Ibrahim Turan, “Thematic vs Chronological History Teaching Debate: A Social Media Research,” Journal of Education and Learning, 2020.01.09].


  1. John 2022-08-16 08:07

    Chronology is the lazy (Hillsdale) way to rote teach history. (And to bore kids out of their skulls.) Building on Cory’s analysis, consider Max Boot’s oped, “Ford’s pardon of Nixon was a historic mistake. Trump is the beneficiary.” (gift article so there is no reason to not read it)

    If the point of a history lesson is to learn about trump and why we are were we are, the lens of looking at societies failures in NOT holding Nixon accountable directly bear on the whining and gnashing of teeth to absolve trump, Clinton, and others, held threads of guilt by association also with the fanciful mythology that a ‘sitting president cannot be charged with a crime’ – perfect malarkey.

    Then, if one really wants to learn, or even teach history, then one must understand the 88-odd year cyclical nature of US/Am-Brit generations. Strauss and Howe’s, “Generations:: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069”; Linear thinking, linear chronology fail to unlock the cyclic nature of both the change of seasons or the changing of generations. There are 6 books that build upon and update the thesis. Strauss died in 2007. Neil Howe carries on the work.

    “William Strauss and Neil Howe posit the history of America as a succession of generational biographies, beginning in 1584 and encompassing everyone through the children of today. Their bold theory is that each generation belongs to one of four types, and that these types repeat sequentially in a fixed pattern. The vision of Generations allows us to plot a recurring cycle in American history—a cycle of spiritual awakenings and secular crises—from the founding colonists through the present day and well into this millennium.
    Generations is at once a refreshing historical narrative and a thrilling intuitive leap that reorders not only our history books but also our expectations for the twenty-first century. ” — review at Goodreads

    Lastly, globalist Peter Zeihan’s books and talks also indirectly highlight the lazy nonsense it is / would be to teach history linearly, in chronology. His recent talk to the Iowa Pork Industry is available on Youtube.

  2. Donald Pay 2022-08-16 08:44

    Great comments, Cory. It reminds me of the “Timeline” in the Appendix of my 8th Grade American History textbook. I like such handy dandy guides to what’s happening in history, but then you have to ask, the obvious question: how complete and accurate is your timeline. If you do a complete timeline, you ain’t going to get through one year, let alone the US history. Inevitably people make judgments about what’s left in and what’s left out. And THAT often reflects where bias comes in.

    My high school class Facebook group often has memes about what was going on in 1969, the year we graduated. “Bad Moon Rising,” gets associated with the moon landing which gets associated with the Dodge Challenger as if they happened all together. The problem is “Bad Moon Rising” was popular in the spring, the moon shot happened in the summer and the Challenger came out in the Fall. Why would anyone associate any of this together, other than it all gets lazily lumped together because these events occurred 1969?

  3. buckobear 2022-08-16 09:16

    I guess Howard Zinn’s “A Peoples History of the United States” won’t be on the textbook list.

  4. Donald Pay 2022-08-16 09:20

    Well, the chronological approach to history would certainly throw a wrench into Thanksgiving, which is the best example of how history often is reduced to mythologizing. Maybe the first Thanksgiving happened in Florida a half century before the Pilgrims.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-08-16 09:48

    Thanksgiving throws a monkey wrench into chronological lesson planning: history teachers either have to time their content to go through pre-Columbian US and the Age Exploration in September and October and get to Plymouth Rock just in time to trace our palms on brown paper to make turkey decorations in mid-November. ;-)

  6. SuperSweet 2022-08-16 09:49

    You cite two good teachers there: Osterberg and Cordts.

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-08-16 09:55

    Neither Osterberg nor Cordts was involved in writing the new proposed social studies standards… alas.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-08-16 09:59

    Chronology as lazy history—good point, John! And thanks for offering those alternative views! It seems there are lots of ways to organize history to teach it effectively to kids. We can certainly just give kids a list of events in the order they happened and let them try to identify the themes as they go along. But the Generations approach John mentions indicates there may be patterns and cycles that we can establish by selecting multiple players from different periods of history and showing students their similarities.

    I’m going to write more posts about these proposed standards—there’s a lot to work on!—but among the critiques teachers may offer when the state holds public hearings on these proposed standards is that Hillsdale appears to be using chronology as its excuse to produce lazy standards. I’m not sure Hillsdale has taken time to organize its curriculum into themes (other than promoting American exceptionalism and Eurowhite-supremacy and resisting any modern liberal thinking). Their invocation of “chronology” as a “guiding principle” for standards feels more like a convenient way to dress up their Ed Hirsch-like American cultural literacy list of names and dates as actual standards, when really all they’ve done is offer a generic content dump ill-tuned to practical classroom demands or deep learning objectives.

  9. bearcreekbat 2022-08-16 10:11

    John, your link to Max Boot’s oped, “Ford’s pardon of Nixon was a historic mistake. Trump is the beneficiary” may have been a gift article to you, but it was blocked when I tried to look at it and demanded a subscription to the Post to access it. Same thing happened with the last supposed “gift article” from the Post that I saw linked here on DFP. If there is something in those WAPO articles you want to share you might consider blockquoting such info while citing the source.

  10. Edwin Arndt 2022-08-16 10:44

    The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. Georg Hegel
    What is history but a fable agreed upon. Maybe Napoleon
    I know, I know, rather cynical. But the reality is that 99% of the population
    doesn’t give a rip.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-08-16 11:02

    Please note, dear readers, that this discussion of the merits of the chronological and thematic approaches to history is not inherently a political debate. I suspect Hillsdale is using this meta-standard or “guiding principle” as a way to obliquely resist thematic approaches that they perceive as leftist, but we don’t have to go down that debate-path that favoring the chronological approach and excluding the thematic approach does not appear to be grounded in research or practice. It’s a biased choice that ignores the apparent learning benefits of incorporating a thematic approach alongside a year-by-year/century-by-century survey of history.

    The pedagogical problems of these standards may be sufficient grounds to send these standards back for revision, without even having to get to the political argument that Noem and Hillsdale want to have about critical race theory, the Founding Fathers, and so-called “classical education”.

  12. 96Tears 2022-08-16 11:28

    This issue has never been what is taught in South Dakota public schools and universities. It has only even been Governor Kristi Noem’s big fat lies about Critical Race Theory and more lately the catch phrase “inherently divisive concepts.” The DOE and the Bored of Regents are adding their two cents worth to make it look like Noem knew what she was talking about in her racist campaign rhetoric intended for a national audience that’s already cued up with the CRT dog whistle. So much activity and expense that is unnecessary and divisive has been wasted. The landmines being planted here are what could possibly be accused as “potentially problematic” in the future. Rabbit holes galore.

  13. All Mammal 2022-08-16 11:39

    Buckobear- I cannot get through Zinn’s book The People’s History of the United States chronologically. I get too rocked and have to put it aside and pick up a historical western or thumb forward in Zinn’s book to a slightly less appalling era. I like that it is all based on actual, eyewitness accounts with some commentary in between. Anti-Kristi and her Hills-have -eyes-dale steers must not read at all. Also, I have shared the pastor’s bit on the crusaders against abortion with several people. The one you posted or linked before and it is very a very helpful viewpoint I have adopted. I like smelling what everyone else is stepping in(:

    The most recent accepted research has shown that the best practices in teaching, from literacy to history, and everywhere in between, is a balanced approach. The best teachers are the best thieves and grab useful tidbits from all over the place to help form those neurological pathways known to endure throughout a lifetime and is personal to each learner. We know there isn’t a supreme theory to teach reading. Phonics isn’t better than fluency and memorization. Combine and balance them all while throwing in a few personal touches to forge the connections. History is imbedded within all other areas of topics. I like using the universal language of music to present lessons I want to really resonate. Associative learning and social learning are tried and true. If a doctor’s office has evolved so much in the past 100 years to hardly be recognizable for a doc from 1922, why does a classroom look identical to those of last century? It has to look something different from what obedient little worker/soldiers learned in. We need innovation in the classroom and that doesn’t mean computer technology incorporation only. In fact, get the for-profits out of the schools. Robots do not make good teachers or students. They’re tools.

    Sorry-off topic-
    Mr. Mark Anderson in FL- hope your thing is going well. Hope to hear from you soon, buddy.

  14. O 2022-08-16 12:06

    If history is a simple chronology of events, then anyone can teach it. This is a continuation of the dummying down of education by the right in an effort to make teaching something “anyone” can do. As long as you are provided a list of events for your students to memorize, then you can teach history. Making connections, seeing themes, understanding motivations, all higher-level/critical thinking skills require the skilled/educated teacher. The goal of curriculum of this nature is to reduce memorization down to multiple-choice computer-delivered testing.

  15. John 2022-08-16 12:10

    bearcreek, thanks for the note. It appears WAPO has problems with consistency of its “gift article” application.
    I’m able to access the Boot oped without signing in. But in the same browser session when I selected the WAPO FDA hearing aid ‘gift article’ the WAPO IT police demanded I sign in or sign up for a subscription. So it appears that Bezos gifts may be more like trumpian gifts, eh?
    Go figure. Thanks for the heads up.

  16. KD 2022-08-16 12:16

    As a 20+ year retired geography teacher and trained Geography Teacher Consultant through the SD Geographical Society I was stunned by the geography “standards”. Geography teachers have worked hard over the years to develop standards that included all aspects of geography and not just the theme of Location. We were able to implement the teaching of geography through 5 Themes. Location, “where is it?” Place, “what’s it like there?” Interaction, “how do people interact with others and the environment?” Movement, “how do people, goods and ideas move?” Region, “how do we group locations?” (by population, language, governments, religion, etc) These “standards” for geography were dominated by locating places on a map and spelling them correctly, certainly important but that’s not geography. We are taking a huge step back in time by adopting these geography standards.

  17. P. Aitch 2022-08-16 14:39

    My brain reacts positively to the paradigm of teaching history backwards starting with today. In high school I had a three-hour class every day for two years (sophomore and junior) named American Studies. It incorporated history, English, music and art and how each was portrayed in a period of time in America. Have used that thinking so very much throughout my lifetime. I’m told it’s still being taught. Also, Donus Roberts and Florence Bruhn were two of the teachers.

  18. P. Aitch 2022-08-16 15:32

    *correction ~ American Studies was history. American literature, music and art conflated into a day’s learning. Not English which was covered in earlier grades.

  19. Arlo Blundt 2022-08-16 15:49

    All Mammal–I miss Mark, too. We need his humor and point of view on this site.
    As a 1950’s attendee of a Catholic Elementary School, I am very familiar with top down, dictated curriculum. This was the age of the County Superintendent of Schools, an elected position, who taught the curricula required by the State Superintendent, another elected position, for each grade. At the end of the year, there was an examination, which supposedly required passing to advance to the next grade. The Nuns took this curricula and the year end test seriously as our school was State Accredited and the Presentation Sisters took that accreditation as proof that our school was just as good, or better, than the “publics”.

    In sixth grade, about February, in Language Arts, all diagramming of sentences, identification of participles, and reading of excerpts from John Fennimore Cooper suddenly stopped. The very strict, very capable Nun, led us on a month long study of the poetry of Vachel Lindsey, a turn of the century, Midwestern Poet, writing in a heroic, “singing rhyme and rhythm,” about legendary figures like Abe Lincoln and General Booth. We spent about 30 minutes a day listening to his poetry, reacting to it, reading it aloud, and studying the people referenced in his poems. In brief, Vachel Lindsey, if you’re not aware, was sort of a poor man’s Carl Sandburg, something of a populist, humanist oriented, Christian-American epic writer. At the time, his poetry and an occasional short story appeared in popular magazines like American Mercury and Saturday Evening Post. In popularity he was secondary only to Edgar Guest, the Indiana master of Iambic Pentameter, who we studied in fourth grade. We could all recite a stanza or two of “Out to Old Aunt Mary’s” as could both my Mother and Father.

    I was a decidedly mediocre student, but I really got into Vachel Lindsey. I looked him up in both the Encylopedia Britannica and Comptons, searched for him in an ancient collection of the Book of Knowledge, and found a thin, gray, tattered library book, “Poets of Our Century” which included some of his shorter poems and a biography. I knew by now, that at the end of our study, we would be required to give a five minute oral report on Vachel Lindsey. I was poised.

    When the day came, I strode to the front of the room, without notes, and delivered a sterling report. Lindsey was well educated, a main stream Protestant, and a writer from childhood. He initially struggled but found a sympathetic publisher and was printed in popular periodicals. He was influenced as a young man, by the rise of the Labor Movement, the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, and the rise of a politician named Eugene Debs, who was imprisoned when he ran for President. His popularity peaked in his thirties and gradually declined. He became depressed, separated from his wife, and committed suicide. I walked back to my desk to total silence. From out of the corner of my eye I could see our teacher, a Nun for thirty years, was looking down at her desk and appeared to be trying to control herself.

    The good Nun rose from her desk and I looked closely to see if she would grab her ruler and give me a thorough whacking. Suicide and divorce
    were not mentioned in the sixth grade of that Catholic School. But she was calm and composed. Vachel Lindsey, she explained, had a checkered life and had not been exposed to the teachings of the Catholic Church. He had been selected as a poet for our studies by both the State Superintendent and County Superintendent and included in the sixth grade required curriculum, which must be followed and respected. We would be tested at the end of the year on Lindsey and his poems. My report, she said was “very complete”. If we should take anything from our study of Lindsey it would be that even the most learned and talented Protestant will most often lead a disturbed life, filled with trouble, as they do not have the support and comfort of Holy Mother Church.

    The test day came. The County Superintendent administered the test. There were three questions about Vachel Lindsey in the Language Arts section. On was to write a paragraph long reaction to “General Booth Walks at Midnight”. I nailed it, and passed the test and sixth grade, though I failed at diagramming cell division. Years later, I told my Dad the story about my report. “Oh, Yes, ” he said, “I studied him too in sixth grade.” He then recited a couple stanzas of “General Booth Walks at Midnight.”

    Once this stuff gets baked into a State dictated Curriculum, it takes decades before it is removed for being no longer relevant. Mrs. Noems biases will live on. She has achieved a certain amount of “back door” immortality.

  20. leslie 2022-08-16 16:15

    not an educator, but i was educated. i like mixing chrono w/thematic and wind back to chrono for context. but working backwards seems most relevant.

    seeing the forest for the trees was always difficult when goddamn memorization of trivia was the testing approach.

    i honor teachers in THEIR profession. No honor for Noem.

  21. larry kurtz 2022-08-16 18:33

    In which grade would it be appropriate to learn South Dakota’s legislature passed a statute of limitations for reporting attempted genocide?

  22. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-08-16 18:42

    KD, thanks for that professional perspective on the shortcomings of Hillsdale’s geography standards. Location, Place, Interaction, Movement, Region—I’ve got to remember those 5 Themes and perhaps develop them into a separate post on this topic. It’s really interesting to see how professionals are looking at these standards and finding that, in Noem’s and Hillsdale’s enthusiasm for making a political point by implementing their “1776” curriculum, they are actually wrecking a much broader social studies developed with care over time by South Dakota educators committed to a truly broad and useful education.

    It seems the 1776 curriculum is really about turning education back to the quality we’d have found in a school in 1776.

  23. John 2022-08-16 19:21

    KD, delighted reading a geographer posting and your observations of the, ehm, regressive standards in the proposal.
    I’m bit of a geography student . . . history, war, economics, et al. Please consider slicing a bit of geography from globalist, Peter Zeihan’s works (books and talks). Clearly all of Zeihan’s works, or all of anyone’s works are unable to shoe-horn into middle and high school curriculums – but consider not ignoring Zeihans’s works.
    Zeihan’s over-arching premise is that geography and demographics reveal much of the “why’ behind a culture or nation’s history, present standing, and likely future. Zeihan would posit the daily ying and yang of politics is barely of secondary importance.
    Consider beginning with his, The Accidental Superpower. It’s a bit dated, yet nails reasons the US / Canada are preeminent global forces: then, now, and in the future. (He presumes the US does not commit trumpian political suicide.) (Also consider reading, The Absent Superpower — which is why the US backed away from its former global leadership and why the world is in the pickle we’re in.) Finally consider reading, The Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World.
    Consider beginning at the present and work backwards. His recent talk to the Iowa Pork Industry (1 hr): and a 3 min follow-up on the ag situation: Zeihan’s May 7th talk on the changing character of war to the maneuver training center – masterfully combines geography and demography.

    Okay, narrowing the focus to South Dakota, one wonders what the SD demographic tree looks like. We presume its “dead” (like China) in the 40ish counties unable to field a county jail. Yet, how healthy or sick is the demographic tree in the others (outside of Sioux Falls and its suburbs).

  24. DaveFN 2022-08-16 21:22

    “…moving chronologically as the events actually unfolded. Themes emerge from this chronology instead of being imposed upon it as an artificial lens…”

    And just what themes would those be? Man’s inhumanity to man, economic exploitation of the working class under capitalism…..?

    If themes emerge they will indeed be those “imposed” by the tendentious motivations of this group through their own artificial lens.

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