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Teaching History Backwards

Posted by Katherine Joyce
23 January 2012 - 10:16am

Imagine, instead of starting your history course at the earliest date covered, you start as close to the present day as possible, and go back in time from there. Teaching history backwards can be very effective at engaging student interest and teaching major historical concepts such as causality. It will also grab students’ attention!

Kenneth W. Hermann and Annette Atkins have both used this approach to teach survey courses at the university level. Hermann taught World Civilizations, and divided his course by civilization, starting with a present issue and working backwards. He “discovered to my pleasant surprise that students grasped complex patterns and causal relationships with this approach that they have rarely done with the traditional approach.” Atkins comes to a similar conclusion, although she teaches her American history survey differently, dividing it into three time periods and challenging students to take a personal interest in the past. 

Alice Domurat Dreger suggests that the most promising aspect of teaching history backwards is the ability to cover more recent history that students are actually interested in. She uses the example of the same-sex marriage debate in the United States:
"To get students to understand the Federal Marriage Amendment, I would take them backwards into the history of romantic partnerships, the history of the medical and social treatment of homosexuality, the history of the state’s involvement in sex and marriage, the history of civil rights. Given the religious tenor of much of the public discussions going on, I would also make sure they understood some about the history of debates over the separation of church and state."

Of course, not everyone believes that teaching history backwards is a valid approach. Alex Massie argues that this approach “betrays history” because “this backwards view of history brings pernicious hindsight to bear upon every significant historical event. It makes the past appear simple and, consequently, its inhabitants seem like simpletons when they take what we now perceive to have been disastrous decisions.Tim Lacey notes the problems of presentism. However, being aware of the potential problems in this approach to teaching history does not mean that the approach is invalid. There are many problems associated with teaching history chronologically, from ‘start’ to ‘finish’. Trying a different approach will cause you, as the teacher, to rethink what material is important and what conclusions you hope your students will draw. The novelty will also engage the students. There is no reason not to try it.

Have you ever taught, or considered teaching, a course, unti, or topic backwards? Did it work?