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Why Can't We Just Look it Up? Using Concept Formation Lessons to Teach Global Connections and Local Cases in World History

Lauren McArthur Harris and Tamara L. Shreiner


     Consider this scenario: a secondary world history teacher gives students a list of vocabulary words to define at the beginning of a unit, including democracy, capitalism, communism, and socialism. The students use textbooks and dictionaries to define the terms, trying to put them into "their own words." Yet, when it comes to applying the definitions to countries, time periods, and situations later in the unit, the students are confused by the differences among the terms. Sound familiar?

     Both of the authors have experienced this scenario in their own teaching and have witnessed it in other classrooms. The subject of world history contains complex concepts (e.g., civilization, imperialism, genocide) that are essential for understanding events, connections, and global patterns. Indeed, as M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford write in their book, How Students Learn History in the Classroom, "understand[ing] facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework" is one of the fundamental principles of learning in any subject.1 If one is to truly understand world history, then, its essential concepts require more than a dictionary understanding. In this article, we discuss the potential of an instructional strategy called concept formation for helping students acquire a deeper understanding of world history concepts than what a textbook or dictionary might afford.2

The Role of Concepts in Understanding World History

     Though concepts have an important role in all academic subjects, they are particularly important in world history for helping teachers and students make connections across the large scales of time and space that studying the global past entails. World historians themselves rely on concepts to make connections across time and space and to emphasize interregional and global patterns.3 Patrick Manning, for example, defined world history as "to put it simply […] the story of connections within the global human community."4 Understanding the concepts historians use to make these connections, then, can help teachers and students make better sense of world history by providing them with a framework for the details they will study across time and space.

     There is, of course, a danger that in focusing on concepts in world history a teacher might reduce them to one-size-fits-all categories that do not take into account local differences. As Eric R. Wolf wrote:

[T]he world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality. Concepts like "nation," "society," and "culture" name bits and threaten to turn names into things. Only by understanding these names as bundles of relationships, and by placing them back into the field from which they were abstracted, can we hope to avoid misleading inferences and increase our share of understanding.5

     Thus, since a concept is "an idea that exists through its examples,"6 a focus on concepts should include an examination not only of its examples, but also the differences between the examples. This approach allows for comparisons of the attributes of the concept in particular events, and also an examination of how those events are connected to each other and how concept definitions can change across time and space.7 For example, in a recent World History Connected article, Brenda Melendy made the case for teaching the concept of genocide in a comparative manner using world historical analysis. She encouraged an examination of examples of genocide that share common attributes (e.g., the intention to destroy a particular group in whole or part), but also the examination of different forms of genocide (e.g., killing members of the group; imposing measures to prevent birth in the group). This careful analysis of the concept definition itself, controversy surrounding the defining of genocide, and also examples of the concept leads to a greater understanding of historical and current instances of genocide.8

Concept Formation as a Strategy for Teaching Connections

     If world history is the story of connections, then helping students to make these connections should be central to the work of a world history teacher. However, world history teachers often report feeling overwhelmed by all the "stuff" they need to teach, often focusing more on planning for "coverage" instead of for meaningful connections.9 Indeed, some of the biggest challenges we have encountered in teaching world history are deciding what to teach and what to omit from the wealth of the historical record. Peter N. Stearns writes that the first lesson for world history teachers is "DARE TO OMIT."10 Recognizing how difficult making omissions can be for teachers though, Stearns recommends that focusing on large regional patterns and interactions can make the decision to omit more manageable. Teaching concepts and their attributes can help teachers make meaningful connections between the stuff of world history by surfacing those important patterns and interactions that Stearns suggests.

     A strategy we have found to be effective for teaching key concepts in world history is concept formation which has been promoted by social studies education researcher Walter C. Parker for over 25 years.11 In a concept formation lesson, the teacher uses carefully chosen examples to help students develop their own meaning of a concept before the teacher defines the concept for the students. This strategy allows students to engage in a more in-depth investigation of a concept than they might otherwise do. Concept formation lessons are particularly useful in world history as a way of highlighting large global patterns and connecting them to local or regional cases. For example, teachers can help students form the concept of political revolution when teaching pivotal events in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in order to see patterns and connections among examples in the United States, France, and Haiti.12 Teachers can also use concept formation to help students detect global patterns in historical processes, such as the Agricultural Revolution, that developed independently in different parts of the world. Focusing on key concepts in a world history allows students to tie together pieces of knowledge and facilitates future learning of related historical events.

     In what follows we first describe the steps of the concept formation strategy. We then illustrate these steps with examples of student participation in a concept formation lesson on nationalism.

Steps for Concept Formation

     The model of concept formation we use in our college and high school world history classrooms and history teaching methods courses is an adaptation of Parker's steps:13

To prepare, the teacher:

  1. Chooses a concept that exemplifies a global pattern in a particular time period (see Figure 1 for criteria for choosing concepts and Figure 2 for a list of concepts we have found to be effective in world history lessons).

  2. Researches the definition of the concept using several sources. Websites such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Dictionary of the History of Ideas, or the Oxford English Dictionary are useful.14

  3. Determines the critical attributes of the concept; these are characteristics that must all be present for something to be classified as an example of the concept.

  4. Develops a set of three or four examples of the concept. These could take the form of a primary source excerpt, a secondary source excerpt, or an image (as long as each displays all of the critical attributes).

  5. Develops a second set of examples and non-examples of the concept (at least three total). All non-examples should have at least one critical attribute to foster more substantive discussion.

During the lesson:

  1. The teacher introduces the concept (e.g., democracy, genocide, revolution), provides justification for why the concept is important, and asks what the students already know about the concept.

  2. The teacher provides examples of the concept without telling students the definition of the concept.

  3. Students work in groups to note similarities among examples and develop a list of potential critical attributes of the concept.

  4. The teacher and the students discuss students' critical attributes.

  5. The teacher shows students a list of critical attributes derived from scholarly definitions; students discuss and try to resolve any discrepancies among the different sets of critical attributes.

  6. Students test more examples and non-examples against the class attributes and discuss their classifications.

  7. Students offer other examples, or conjectures about the concept's role in the current unit of study and in future units.

Teaching the Concept of Nationalism

     In 2007, we designed a lesson on the concept of nationalism (see Appendix) for the online World History for Us All curriculum.15 We have since used the lesson as a model for teaching preservice teachers about the concept formation strategy and taught the lesson several times in high school world history classes. In what follows, we describe the process of teaching the lesson to tenth grade high school students and highlight student understandings of the concept of nationalism.16

     We17 began the nationalism concept formation lesson by asking students to write about what they already knew about nationalism and then share their thoughts in discussion. Most students revealed in their writing and discussion that they thought nationalism was synonymous with patriotism, and they conflated the terms nation and country. This discovery prompted a brief in-class discussion to clarify terms.

     We then divided students into groups of three to read and discuss examples of the concept of nationalism (see Appendix, Student Handout 1). We explained that they would be looking for common characteristics across the examples and gave them a chart to help them record their ideas for critical attributes of the concept and test the attributes against each example (see Appendix, Student Handout 3). Because this activity required comprehension within and across cases, we read through the first example with students to model close reading of the texts and support comprehension. We then asked students to continue reading in their groups, highlighting specific parts of examples that illustrated an attribute. This group reading activity required active teacher participation. We traveled from group to group trying to ensure that students were not having difficulties working with the texts and to coach them when they identified an attribute that did not fit all the cases. Sometimes, we also needed to help students refine their language as they were identifying attributes, helping them to reason inductively and verbalize attributes that might be generalized across statements. Other times, we needed to help them bisect an attribute they identified (e.g., "belief in having your own land and government" was separated into "belief in having your own land or territory" and "belief that you should have your own government").

     After sufficient time for groups to identify critical attributes, we asked the groups to report their attributes to the whole class. The goal was for students to agree on critical attributes. The teacher recorded each group's response, actively compared them with other groups' responses, and helped the students reach some consensus. Initially there were some variations in students' critical attributes, but this led to lively and productive discussions about the cases and their meaning. It helped that students had underlined specific examples from the readings. Students were ready to vehemently defend their attributes, but prompting them to point to a specific excerpt of text in order to defend their claim sometimes forced them to rethink their arguments. For example, one student argued that nationalism always involved "fighting against a weakening or disintegrating existing central government." Another student took issue with this argument and a discussion ensued. However, when we asked the student to defend her position by citing examples, the student realized that not all of the examples involved fighting against a central government (e.g., Italian unification involved uniting people from territories controlled by different empires).

     After the teacher-facilitated whole group discussion, students came up with the following list of critical attributes:

  • Belief that common language, religion, ethnicity, or heritage brings people together

  • Belief in having a common territory

  • Belief in being free from "foreign" rule

  • Willingness to engage in violent conflict or revolt on behalf of the nation

     We then showed students the list of attributes based on scholarly definitions (see Appendix) and asked them to compare and comment upon the accuracy of the definitions. Because the lesson designers purposely chose examples that would lead students to a particular set of critical attributes, students' responses were close, but not identical to the teachers' critical attributes. Interestingly, students had become so committed to their own attributes that they were convinced theirs were better. When asked if there were significant differences, students pointed out that their class list of attributes did not say anything specific about loyalty, but that it was implied in the attribute about willingness to engage in conflict. We then asked students if they should modify their attributes, and after some discussion about whether or not the phrase fit their understanding of nationalism from the cases, they agreed they should add "because of loyalty to nation" to the end of the fourth attribute.

     After agreeing upon attributes of nationalism, students were ready to apply them to additional examples and non-examples. As planned (see Appendix, step 7), the third case on the Mexican-American War prompted the most debate. Many students in the class argued that this was a case of nationalism because of the ultimate overthrow of the Austrian ruler by nationalist forces, but others argued that it did not fit all the attributes because of the invitation to foreign rule. We again asked students if they needed to revise their attributes, but there was an overwhelming response from students that they should not because they did not yet feel as though they had enough knowledge of the Mexican-American War. They asked several questions that they wanted to "look up" in order to make their decision. Here it became obvious that the nature of the activity not only prompted students to ask questions about specific details about an event in history that they were then motivated to research, but it also fostered the skill of contextualization18 --that is, in this case students needed to know more about the larger historical context of the example before they could determine if it was in fact an example of nationalism.

     The lesson ended with a discussion of both positive and negative actions that nationalism might inspire in people and governments. Students suggested that nationalism might motivate people to work toward making their nation a better community or encourage people to participate in government, but that it might also lead people to think that those outside of their "imagined communities"19 were less intelligent, talented, or worthy of rights. The discussion of nationalism provided a nice segue into a unit on colonialism, where students used the concept of nationalism to analyze the actions and attitudes of colonial powers.

     The concept of nationalism also proved to help students make connections across time and space. In subsequent units on the World Wars and decolonization, students were quick to mention instances of nationalism whenever they saw evidence of it, often specifically referring to the concept formation lesson discussion. They came to understand nationalism as an important aspect of people's identities across the globe, across centuries and across cultures. In studying both wars and independence movements, students also examined specific cases where nationalism could be either a negative and positive force for change.


     From civilization to empire, revolution to nationalism, world history is rife with concepts that have enduring value across units of world historical study and in the world today. As the name implies, the concept formation strategy allows students to take a more active role in forming key concepts in world history--using examples from different time periods and cultures--instead of simply defining them as vocabulary words. We have found that the time spent on particular concepts in world history is worth the investment in terms of students' understanding and abilities to apply the concepts to different regions and time periods. The students can also examine how concept definitions are often politicized and how definitions of some concepts have changed over time. The concept formation strategy represents one way to teach global connections and local cases in world history.


Lesson Plan: Forming the Concept of Nationalism20

Course: World History

Grade level: 9-12

Length of lesson: One class period; approximately 50 minutes.


     Students will be able to identify characteristics of the concept of nationalism by analyzing examples of late 19th and early 20th century nationalism in China, the Balkan Peninsula, South Africa, and Italy.

Sources for critical attributes and examples:

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. and extended ed. London: Verso, 1991.

Stearns, Peter N., Michael Adas, and Stuart B. Schwartz. World Civilizations: The Global Experience. 3rd ed. New York: Longman, 2001.


1. Tell students that the ideology of nationalism emerged in the 18th and 19th century Atlantic Revolutions, and quickly spread to many parts of the world. Ask students to jot down what they know about nationalism and share responses. Explain to students that since nationalism is a concept central to world history during and after this time period, they will spend time trying to understand this complex concept.

2. Divide students into small groups and distribute Student Handout 1. Instruct students to work with their groups to find similarities between the examples. Explain that these similarities will be the critical attributes of the concept nationalism.

3. Once the groups of students have come up with a preliminary list of attributes, have students fill them in on the first chart on Student Handout 3. They should check to make sure that all of the examples meet each of the critical attributes and revise the attributes if not. Students should note the place in the text that provides evidence of the attribute.

4. Call the class together and discuss the attributes students identified. Record these attributes on the board, noting patterns. After groups have suggested possible critical attributes, offer for consideration attributes derived from scholarly definitions of nationalism:

a. Valuing a collective identity based on history, language, race, and/or ethnicity
b. Believing that a certain group of people is bonded to one another because of a shared identity
c. Placing loyalty to a defined nation above loyalty to other groups or individual interests
d. Making political claims on behalf of a defined nation

5. Ask students if they agree or disagree with the above list (the attributes should be similar to students' attributes). Try to come to a consensus on the critical attributes. Post agreed-upon attributes where they will be visible throughout instruction, including in later units.

6. Distribute Student Handout 2. Explain to students that they should use the second chart to test the examples against the agreed-upon critical attributes. Inform students there may be an event on the handout that is a non-example. Students must decide which is which and explain why each is or is not an example. Give students time to work in groups before discussing the examples as a class.

7. Discuss with students why each event is or is not an example of nationalism.

  • Number 4 is not an example of nationalism
  • Number 5 is an example of nationalism
  • Number 6 is an interesting case and students can debate whether or not it is a clear case of nationalism. There are some aspects that are (executing the foreign emperor) and some that are not (Mexican conservatives asking for foreign intervention in the governing of their country)

8. Conclude the discussion by asking students if they know of any other historical or current examples of nationalism.


     Students can turn in their charts from Student Handout 3. An extension assessment would be to have students find an example of nationalism either in their history textbook or in a recent newspaper and write about how the example meets the critical attributes of nationalism.

Student Handout 1—Examples of Nationalism

Directions: Work with members of your group to find and jot down similarities between these examples of nationalism. These similarities will become your critical attributes to record on the first chart of Handout 3.

# 1

     In 1870, Italian troops entered Rome in a final effort to unify Italian-speaking people into one nation, free from foreign rule and controlled by a central government. This effort had begun in the 1830s and continued through the liberal European revolutions of 1848. For the next 20 years, leaders such as Count Cavour and Giuseppe Garibaldi negotiated and fought to gain control of territory ruled by Austria, France, and the Catholic Church. By 1866, the Italians had gained control of all territories except for the Papal States, controlled by the Pope and protected by French troops. When war broke out between the Prussians and the French in 1870, the French were forced to withdraw their troops from the Papal States, and the Italians gained control of the final territory and completed the unification of Italy.

# 2

     In 1898, a group of Chinese rebels, angered by the steady takeover of the Chinese empire by foreigners and Chinese Christians, began attacking Christian missionaries and others in northeastern China. The "Boxer" uprisings resulted in the deaths of hundreds of foreigners and Chinese Christians. Although the Boxer rebels were officially denounced by the royal court, they secretly gained support from some people in the Qing court, including Empress Dowager Cixi. In 1900, the Boxers took siege on foreigners in the Chinese capital at Beijing. After months of assault, a relief army of German, British, American, French, Japanese, and Russian troops moved in and took control of the city. A peace treaty signed in 1901 required the Chinese to pay for the failed rebellion.

# 3

     In 1912 and 1913 the countries of the Balkan Peninsula engaged in two wars. During the 19th century, when Turkish power in the empire declined, The Balkan countries had won independence from the Ottoman Empire. The Slavic people of Serbia, who had gained independence in 1878, wanted to make their country the center of a large Slavic state in alliance with Russia. However, not all Balkan nations were in agreement with Serbia in this matter. In addition, Austria, which had a large Slavic population in the southern part of their empire, did not want Serbia to gain control of the Slavic regions. The two wars resulted in territorial gains for the Balkan countries, but did not completely satisfy them. The tension on the Balkan Peninsula during these wars was a precursor to the tensions that would spark World War I.

Student Handout 2—Examples and Non-Examples of Nationalism

Directions: Use your critical attributes and the second chart provided in Handout 3 to determine which of the following cases are examples of nationalism and which are not.


     By the 1900s the feminist movement was encouraging legal and economic gains for women in various parts of the world. Women campaigned to have the right to vote and the right to higher education, as well as equal access to divorce and child custody. Although the movement was peaceful in some countries, in Great Britain Emmeline Pankhurst (15 July 1858 – 14 June 1928) led a more militant suffrage movement which included several attention-getting disturbances, such as planting bombs, smashing windows, and arson. Pankhurst and many other suffragettes went to prison in the first part of the 20th century. Women received the right to vote on the same basis as men in Great Britain in 1928.


     From 1899 to 1902, the British and the Boers fought over territory and resources in South Africa. The Boers (descendants of Dutch settlers from the 1600s) distinguished themselves by a language Afrikaans that was derived from Dutch, African, French, German and English, and their religion, Calvinist Protestantism. In the early 1850s, the Boers declared two republics in the interior of South Africa, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. After diamonds were discovered in the Orange Free State in the 1860s, more and more British citizens settled in South Africa. In 1899, the Boers declared war against the British. The war resulted in a loss for the Boers, but it paved the way for British decolonization in South Africa and rule by the Boer minority over the African majority in South Africa.


     After the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and a civil war, a group of conservative Mexicans encouraged Napoleon III of France to intervene in the governing of Mexico. The conservatives were unhappy with the liberal program that President Benito Juarez had pushed. Encouraged by the French, Maximilian von Hapsburg of Austria took over the throne of Mexico in 1864. However, Maximilian did not live up to the conservatives' hopes; he supported some of Juarez's liberal policies that had been installed before his reign. Despite this support, the former president of Mexico Benito Juarez rejected the idea of a foreign emperor and organized a resistance movement. When Napoleon III withdrew French troops in 1867, Maximilian was captured and executed in 1867. Benito Juarez returned to power in December 1867.

Lesson 1

Student Handout 3—Concept Formation Charts

Directions: In the chart below, use the first row to record each one of your critical attributes. Then check off if each example you read matches the critical attributes. Use the space to jot down a specific example from the text that tells you why the case matches the attribute.

Critical Attributes (fill in below)

Examples of Nationalism








Directions: Fill in the critical attributes from the class discussion below. Then check off if each example or non-example you read matches the critical attributes. If something doesn't meet an attribute, write why not.

Critical Attributes (fill in below using what the class agreed upon)

Examples and non-examples of Nationalism








Figure 1

Criteria for Selecting Concepts for Concept Formation Lessons in World History

The concept:

  • Is abstract and/or requires unpacking
  • Is often misunderstood by students (and adults)
  • Has a complex definition that includes several critical attributes
  • Has examples from different regions and/or time periods
  • Has potentially engaging non-examples

Figure 2

Suggested Concepts for World History Concept Formation Lessons

Civil Disobedience
Civil War
Guerilla warfare
Political revolution
Total war
World/universal religion

     Lauren McArthur Harris is an Assistant Professor of History Education at Arizona State University with appointments in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies and the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She is a former high school world history teacher who now conducts research on teaching and learning world history. Recent publications include "Conceptual Devices in the World of World Historians" in Cognition and Instruction (2012), and "Considering World History as a Space for Developing Global Citizenship Competencies" in The Educational Forum (with Brian Girard, 2013). She can be contacted at

     Tamara L. Shreiner is a World History teacher at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For the past three years she has also been involved in the Big History Project at the University of Michigan, as both a teacher and a researcher. Past publications include "The Dilemmas of a National Assessment in World History" in World History Connected (with Robert B. Bain, 2006) and "Issues and Options in Creating a National Assessment in World History" in The History Teacher (with Robert B. Bain, 2005). She can be contacted at


1 M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford, "Introduction," in M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford, eds., How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press), 1.

2 The authors would like to thank Anne-Lise Halvorsen, Brian Girard, and Nick Orlowski for their helpful comments on previous drafts.

3 Lauren McArthur Harris, "Conceptual Devices in the Work of World Historians," Cognition and Instruction 30 no. 12 (October, 2012): 312–358.

4 Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 3.

5 Eric R. Wolf, "Connections in History," in Ross E. Dunn, ed. The New World History: A Teacher's Companion, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1982/2000), 131.

6 Walter C. Parker, "Teaching Thinking: The Pervasive Approach." Journal of Teacher Education 38 no. 3 (1987): 52.

7 Peter J. Lee refers to these types of concepts as substantive concepts, see "Putting Principles into Practice: Understanding History." In Suzanne M. Donovan and John D. Bransford, eds., How Students Learn History in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2005), 31–77.

8 Brenda Melendy, "World History Analysis and the Comparative Study of Genocide," World History Connected (October 2012) online at <>, accessed October 2, 2013).

9 See for example Robert Bain and Lauren McArthur Harris, "A Most Pressing Challenge: Preparing Teachers of World History," Perspectives on History 47, no 7 (October, 2009): 33–43.

10 Peter N. Stearns, World History: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 2011), 11. Emphasis in the original.

11 See for example Parker, "Teacher Thinking," Walter C. Parker, "Thinking to Learn Concepts," The Social Studies 79, no 2 (March/April, 1988): 70–73.

12 Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall presents a strong case for examining the Haitian Revolution as a way of understanding the relationship between the revolutions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. See "Teaching About Haiti in World History: An Introduction" World History Connected, (June 2013) online at <>, accessed October 18, 2013.

13 Walter Parker, "Concept Formation," online at <>, accessed October 18, 2010.

14 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (, Dictionary of the History of Ideas (;brand=default), Oxford English Dictionary (


16 This article draws on Tamara Shreiner's 2012 class discussion notes, student work, and annotated lesson plan.

17 Although this lesson was taught in Shreiner's class, we use "we" for clarity.

18 Sam Wineburg describes contextualization as the "act of creating a spatial and temporal context for a historical event," see "Reading Abraham Lincoln: An Expert/Expert Study in the Interpretation of Historical Texts," Cognitive Science 2 no. 3 (1998): 322.

19 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism Rev. and extended ed. (London: Verso, 1991).

20 Adapted from Lauren McArthur Harris and Tamara L. Shreiner, "New Identities: Nationalism and Religion, 1850-1914" in World History For Us All, (

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