What are the best ways to teach a U.S. history course thematically?


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David Lindquist

Thematic instruction in history has much to offer, especially given the demand to "cover everything" during high school history courses, an approach that leads to surface level treatment of many topics. Thematic instruction allows the teacher to provide in-depth coverage of carefully selected topics because, while time does not allow this approach for all topics, the teacher can choose a few topics to develop more fully than is the norm.

Thematic instruction helps the teacher move history instruction past a simple telling of what happened and to more sophisticated levels. For example, a thematic unit on the 1920s could focus on opposing trends, that is, the "Roaring 20s" on one hand and the conservative response to progressivism on the other. Taking this approach, the unit's theme (title) might be something like "The 1920s: Roaring or Reactionary?" This theme could be explored by studying various factors (e.g., entertainment, competing views of national and international politics, social mores, immigration, education, etc.) that illustrate the roaring vs. reactionary nature of the time.

Implementing this approach allows (and, perhaps, forces) the teacher to incorporate information that moves the study of history beyond the focus on political activity (e.g., laws, presidents, wars, etc.) that often dominates high school history instruction. As such, social history is added to the political history of the time. Students thus develop a more balanced view of historical events than is usually the case. In addition, thematic instruction is ideally suited for interdisciplinary instruction that integrates two or more academic disciplines.

The thematic approach can be time consuming in terms of both curriculum development and in-class implementation. As such, it may not be possible to use thematic instruction for an entire course. However, studying carefully selected topics using the approach allows students to see how various factors all come together to form a given historical period.

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