World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

World History Makeover: World History Syllabi

Deborah Smith Johnston, Ph.D.
Lexington High School

    This is a regular column that takes European history and western civ lessons and suggests world historical approaches. This is not meant to be a comprehensive review of the literature, or of possible lessons, but a means for teachers new to global approaches to see beyond the box. Readers are encouraged to send in additional suggestions for adaptations they have tried in their own classrooms. Readers are additionally urged to submit topics that they need revamped for their own world history courses.
    A course syllabus defines the course you teach.1 Your personality, organizational ability, commitment to recent history, instructional preferences and assessment priorities are laid out within it. For those reasons, the process of writing a syllabus matters.2 Traditionally, most world history syllabi have been generated based on the chapters of a textbook or an authorized set of standards. The result is that students get a curriculum of chapter after chapter, fact after fact. They do not usually gain from this an appreciation for the interconnectedness of each chapter, each region, and each time. I remember an anecdote from one of the first workshops I led on the new Massachusetts Social Studies frameworks.3 One of the department chairs at the workshop was very proud of his efforts to align his curriculum by taking each framework strand in order and teaching that content for a week. This may have been a successful approach if the framework had been more than a laundry list of unrelated topics strung together with no overarching themes and minimal global representation. Such a syllabus is likely to seem fragmented to students, since there is no attempt to create an overarching framework to aid learning. Without understanding the connections between the parts, students will not see the patterns, the narratives, or the sense of history.
    Choosing an overarching theme for the year that you and your students can connect with will help with both selection and motivation. For my sample syllabi, I chose to focus on Community and Conflict as the overarching theme. Secondary themes should be chosen which are active, embody an historical argument, require interdisciplinary approaches or sources, and are global enough to be representative of more than one place (for example, Searching for Justice and Power).4 By making the curriculum thematically rather than regionally based, no single place is privileged, units of analysis are selected based on their application to global processes, and there are opportunities for students to reflect on periodization. Periodization is the next consideration in order to make the thematic units coherent, teachable chunks where students get a sense of chronology and sequence. Be aware of the assumptions that come with periodization as you determine whether or not to build the course around 1500 or to use specific dates (for example, 1789, 1898, 1914). Only the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution were really global turning points, but the themes should help determine logical break points for the units. Clearly stating your objectives and assumptions will help to initiate the discourse on periodization that must be part of the course.
    Pacing plays a role here. In any survey course, it is essential that pacing be decided prior to the beginning of the year. The standard practice of students never getting past World War II is not acceptable, and will not happen if you pace the class carefully. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances like school cancellations, assemblies, fire drills, and teachable moments. However, by building in some extra time for each unit, the effect of unexpected interruptions to instruction time can be minimized. Teachers need to decide how long each unit will be based upon the number of school days, weeks, and/or quarters. To ease grading at the end of term, the end of a marking period does not need to be used as the end of a unit. Vacation breaks can be used as opportunities to move onto new units. Transition units (such as railroads, coffeehouses, utopias…) can be considered for instances when there are only a few days before a long break. For example, a unit on coffeehouses works nicely as a transition unit between the “intellectual exchange” (the Enlightenment) and revolutions. In designing my own unit on coffeehouses, I wanted students to be able to extend backward and think about the discovery of coffee in Ethiopia, the impact it had through coffeehouses on Islamic law, family structure, and society and then move with coffee through Europe, looking at the similar role in played in England and elsewhere in fermenting political change and, in France, revolution. 4
    There are inevitable tensions in pacing a course of this scope. How much depth should there be on any given topic? Should you allow for the spontaneity of a class and respond to current events in depth or extend topics students have taken an interest in? The hope is that some balance can be found as you design the course to allow for occasional forays into the past and present. These types of extensions are valuable checkpoints for student understanding and their ability to navigate through time and scale. One of the advantages of using themes is in fact that more connections can be found so lessons can be built in that look at those intersections with news events or other historical happenings. It is hard to spend any one day on a topic and then move on the next day to a new topic. By trying to merge a set of joint topics over the course of week, connected to the overarching theme(s), the course feels less fragmented. Pacing will help ensure that students have the benefit of a balanced approach to the survey where they do not feel like they have been on a treadmill all year. They need to see the coherence of the entire course as they reach the culminating unit.
    Within each period, I brainstorm the topics of importance and then consider case studies to help convey those topics. The difficulty here is not necessarily to choose places as topics but as examples so that one can demonstrate how global processes affect a variety of places. I have found that grouping these topics into sub-themes allows me to see global processes more clearly. I was less likely to talk about the “Americas” and more likely to compare the role of the individual in empire expansion through the Incas, Sundiata and Genghis Khan. The case studies selected might be places (a land or water region, empire, country, or city), climatic events, commodities, individuals, a specific time, or a religion.5 You might consider some instances where one place is followed all the way through the syllabus. Alternatively, you might decide to focus on different areas during each time period under study. It is important not only to focus on places of dominance or places of dense population, but also places which are involved in global processes and might actually be more representative of the greater mass of humanity at a given time.6 A variety of case studies will result in a curriculum that is both global and that reflects the many sources of world history. These topics and case studies will help to generate the key questions that in turn will help to narrow the focus of the unit. The key questions are a critical component of a theme driven curriculum. They place what is already an active idea into a question that allows students to see the argument and debate. The topics and case studies help them to process varying responses to that question, relating the theme at the same time to broader historical contexts, and to their own lives.
    The world history survey is a difficult course to teach not only because of its global reach and its temporal expansiveness but also because of the variety of disciplines that help to support world history research. The world history course needs to be inter-disciplinary at every level. Consider for each unit the major disciplines that are being called upon. History itself has many branches—this ensures that we are addressing social and cultural history as well as perhaps the more common political and military history. Literature, economics, religion, sociology, anthropology, science, and archaeology all also provide insight into the global processes that are part of the course. As a syllabus is created, consider how best to utilize these approaches. Most fundamental to world history, in my opinion, is geography. Without geography as a foundation, students have a difficult time understanding the importance of location, connections, and exchanges—all key concepts in world history. In designing a syllabus, regularly include topics and activities that build geographic literacy skills. This leads to the next level of thinking about syllabi. What skills, beyond geography, should be reinforced and taught in the course? World history can help teach sequencing, mental mapping, developing arguments, working with historical and literary sources, media literacy, visual interpretation, comparison, seeing the big picture, change over time, cause and effect, working with scale, research, presentations, thesis development, and writing. When considering your content, think about the skills that can be taught simultaneously. For example, in the AP course, one can teach a lesson on the importance of periodization by providing students with an example of a bad thesis and then a brief outline of what a good essay on periodization might include. The task of students is to then to rewrite the thesis so that it is analytical and provides a road map for the essay. In the process, they have improved thesis writing skills and learned about periodization. These skills need to be developed over the span of the course, ensuring time for student practice and refinement. A survey course that builds skills is one that creates historical thinkers—more important in the long run than one that relies on rote memorization and fact-building.
    Waiting until this point in the syllabi-creation process to turn to resources will result in a course less driven by texts. But the resource question is important. Availability, access, cost and quality are all factors to consider when deciding on a textbook and on supplementary sources. Space will not permit further discussion of this, but an upcoming issue of World History Connected will deal with this very issue!
    In addition, a syllabus should offer a variety of instructional and assessment strategies. Instructional strategies might include simulations, role-plays, seminar discussion, guided lectures, power point presentations, video clips, and projects that will engage students in the process of learning. Assessment suggestions should be designed to have students apply the information they have learned through writing, portfolios, or presentations, and in the case of the AP course, also for the external exam. Objectives for assessment should be content application (not just regurgitation), skill enhancement, and accountability (for students and teachers.)
    I have so far described the process of syllabi creation as I think it should be. But I do want to throw in a dose of reality. Knowing the demands placed upon a classroom teacher with multiple preps and papers to grade (plus an outside life, one hopes), the actual implementation of the syllabus above could be a long process. The curriculum development necessary to do “cutting-edge world history” is massive. Innovative approaches to “doing world history” often mean that curriculum development becomes a constant chore. For example, it seemed like an interesting idea to compare religious schisms in Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. I researched the topic and then put together a graphic organizer activity for students to create. Putting together this lesson was fun, but it was also time consuming, and in the end it only represented one day of class time for one course!
    The following checklist for syllabi creation has worked well at Institutes and beyond as educators have begun to reconceptualize their own courses. Table 6-1 is broken into three parts which includes Questions to ask of a Syllabus, a content checklist, and a skills checklist. In the developmental stages of syllabi creation, these provide helpful reminders about periodization, units of analysis, skills, strategies, and pacing.
Table 6-1 Questions to Ask of a Syllabus

Questions to ask of a Syllabus

What do you think works best about the way you currently organize your course?
Does not being able to follow a textbook closely make the course more intimidating to teach or more liberating?
How might you pace the year(s)?
What are the most important units/ topics to include?
How might you show comparisons and linkages between time and places?
How will you integrate themes and skills throughout the year?
Are there certain days of the week when certain activities take place? (discussion, current events, simulation)
Can this course be taught without relying on lecture methods? What other teaching strategies might be utilized?
What types of assessment instruments or projects might you utilize?
How is your syllabus communicated to students during the year?

Content Checklist

•       Global processes drive the course
•       Connections and comparisons are present regularly
•       Regional balance within case studies
•       Temporal balance
•       Variety of instructional materials: multi-media, primary and secondary materials, visual and textual sources, field trips (art museums, History Museums, special exhibits), speakers.


Checklist of Skills/ Strategies to integrate

•       Timelines/ Sequencing
•       Geography
•       Development of graphic organizers
•       Document analysis
•       Practicing Point of View
•       Journals
•       Inner outer circle seminar discussions
•       Debates (diverse interpretations)
•       Vocabulary enrichment
•       Variety of Assessment
•       Projects (including new technologies)
•       Practice Multiple choice, Change over time, Comparison and DBQ’s for AP courses.

    Peter Stearns points to discussions about curricular change where some believe that there needs to be compromise between the canonists (this is the list of what they need to know) and “radicals.” He argues that, rather, the first step in curricular change must be a “fundamental initial innovation.” He cites as an example the efforts first made by social historians in textbooks. Textbooks included special sidebars on women, but the overall narrative was still political. Stearns argues that, “As a way station, the snippets approach made some sense. Revolutions do not occur overnight, and a few more lessons one year might lead—in a few bold cases, did lead – to an entire unit the next. For the most part, however, adding an occasional snippet to textbooks or to course syllabi proved counterproductive in that it excused teachers from giving any real thought to combining old and new.” 7 He goes on to claim that these snippets provided no continuity for dealing with social history themes and since they were so out of context with the rest of the text or the course, did not offer an opportunity for comparison. This is much like the celebration of Black History Month or Women’s History Month. More attention needs to paid to integrating these topics throughout the curriculum rather than isolating them from the mainstream of history. 13
    In writing up syllabi for a survey course, there is the constant recognition that it is in fact a very personal journey through the material that I will take with my students. But the hope is that there are elements within each that may be of value for others. It is through this belief that I have included a brief discussion of a possible syllabi for the two year high school world history course. 14

A Two Year High School World History Course

    One of the breakthroughs for me in devising this syllabus was how to approach the topics within each theme. Initially brainstorming led to regional/ place based topics. But those changed into sub-themes in order to create a more integrated course. That way students encounter, for example, the Mongols and the Aztecs on the same day as comparable empires with strong leaders. Further depth and study would be done on each, but the topic would begin and end with parallels, connections or comparisons—that is, a look at the Big Picture.

Highlights for Ninth Grade:



Philosophy of World History


Building a Community

2.5 mya/ 200,000 – 200 BCE

Searching for Justice and Ethics within Community

1000 BCE – 500 CE

Ways of Power: Empire and Expansion

500 CE – 1450 CE

Representations of Power: Architecture, Land, Technology and Art

800 CE – 1400 CE

New Worldviews: Connections and Collisions

1200 CE – 1600 CE

Expansion and Exploitation

1400 CE – 1800 CE

    The first unit of each of these syllabi is Philosophy of World History. The main focal point is a discussion of the units of analysis in world history (i.e. civilizations, regions, water bodies, the nation state, ethnic groups, peoples, cities, religions, commodities). This discourse provides students with an understanding that world history needs to be approached on a variety of scales and levels depending on the questions being asked. Also in each course, there is an emphasis on mental mapping where students are required to develop a spatial framework in their heads. The themes for each unit build upon the idea of Community and Control and also upon each other as students proceed through the year. So, for example, the second unit for the ninth grade is on Building Community.8 This unit works well for establishing what a community is and for providing an alternate vision to early civilizational history. After seeing specific aspects of how a community evolves—through migration, trade, architecture, religion, education and other factors—students see the connection between past and present. Students engage in a UNESCO simulation where they do research and oral presentations to protect world heritage sites from around the world. In addition, the theme of community naturally lends itself to contemporary situations. In the fall of 2002, students were able to look at an historical architectural site (i.e. The Parthenon, the Kaaba) and compare the sense of community each structure represented to sense of community represented by the World Trade Center.
    It is in the fourth theme that the sub-themes really stand out as being different from traditional regional units of analysis. The theme for the unit is Ways of Power: Empire and Expansion. Here I felt strongly that I did not want to proceed empire by empire. Thus, the unit begins with the idea of “Empires Gaining and Maintaining Power” by looking at the role of the individual. In this way, students will see human agency even when considering great empires. They will also see cases studies that are not normally considered together. Looking at the Aztec, Mali and Mongol empires provides interesting contrasts and similarities, particularly in terms of leadership. The next two sub-themes, dealing with trade and religion, also list case studies that are representative of the many possibilities one could choose from. When devising the sub-themes, I had to think about what message certain themes would send about the time period, and what case studies could best represent those themes. It is essential then for this time to discuss the Indian Ocean world, Islam, and the Chinese, and the technological developments of the time—all of which interrelate between the three themes. 17
    Unit Five began as a unit to make sure that Africa and the Americas were not left out until the Europeans got there. It looks at how power is represented through architecture and art as well as the control of technology and land. This is an ideal time to develop the concept of feudalism in Japan and Europe. In addition, ceremonial as well as sacred architecture can demonstrate technological skill and political and religious beliefs. A focus on material culture lends itself to student-generated PowerPoint presentations on art and architecture. It was important to me that Unit VI not break with 1500. Looking at cartography, connections, collisions and global consequences, the age is not about European exploration but about a cosmopolitan world system before 1500 and an increasingly global system following 1500. Perspective is an important skill in this unit as students look at travel literature and evolving worldviews. Global processes become increasingly evident with the increase of eastern as well as western migrations, diasporas, and the worldwide movement of flora, fauna and germs. This unit also sets up a good periodization discussion around the significance of the year 1500. In the last time period for the ninth grade course, the idea of power or control finds new forms of expression within local communities. As empires expand and there is an increasing exploitation of resources and labor, students can see changes and continuities in the world through economics and religion.

Highlights for Tenth Grade:



Philosophy of World History


Experimenting with New Ideas

1800 - Present

Building a Global Industrial Society

1750 – 1900

Defining Rights, Finding Identity

1750 - 1989

Resistance to Hegemony

1800 - Present

Global Conflict as a Means of Shaping World Order

1898- Present

Responses to Globalization: Finding Identity in an Interconnected World

1945 - Present


    In the tenth grade course, following the initial Philosophy unit, there is a unit that examines intellectual thought. It looks backwards and forwards in time beginning the unit with a bit of review and also a look at worldviews in the early nineteenth century. Through science and technology (as well as attitudes that evolve out of the changing industrial and imperial world regarding gender, race and class), this unit looks at the big ideas that will shape the tenth grade course. A unit on reform and one on family ensures global representation and attention to varied perspectives. The role of education through literacy campaigns such as the one in Cuba is particularly interesting to students. The next unit looks at Global Industrialization through sugar and textiles. Both of these commodities have interesting global narratives which can be told through a specific place, Brazil and Japan (or India) for example. Understanding a global process can be seen through the local example—students learning to negotiate the scale between such traverses. The fourth unit of the tenth grade course is the first of two identity units, stressing the community element of the overarching theme. “Defining Rights, Finding Identity” deals with what identity means, and then explores nationalism. It also looks at how people sought political and economic identity through revolution and reform, and how those changes influenced their lives. Too often the nineteenth century is told via the eyes of the imperializer. By talking about resistance to political, economic, and social change numerous case studies involving imperialism as well as trade and religion can be discussed. The last sub-theme ensures that all perspectives are voiced. Resistance to change by, for example, people in the United States, South Africa, and Russia is raised as a reminder that change is usually difficult.
    A unit on Global conflict and world order connects 1898 to the present—rather than the traditional 1914 to 1945 divide. Students engage in discussions of collateral damage in warfare and conflicts over identity, ideology, land and resources. Technology, conflict, human rights issues, genocide, migration, and international law are raised as global processes. By necessity students learn less about the battles of World War II and more about the nature, causes and consequences of conflict. The last unit focuses on identity and how responses to Globalization worldwide stem in part from a search for this new identity. Case studies vary significantly in this unit as one is done on Japan to demonstrate a microcosm of globalization and varied responses within. Also international organizations, ideologies, and consumerism are highlighted. The last unit concerns the role of global citizens and addresses issues of student empowerment. 20
    Limitations: One of the limitations of this syllabus involves resources. Finding appropriate materials for all class levels with a non-traditional approach is challenging and time consuming, though not impossible. Despite the fact that this course is drawn out over two years (as opposed to the one-year course many people are now required to teach), it still moves at a fast pace. I question whether I have been selective enough. Do the themes narrow down the subject enough that the course becomes reasonable? I also worry that by using the overarching themes of community and control, the ideas of power and dominance may be too prevalent. I think the emphasis on community counterbalances this most of the time, along with an emphasis on labor, economics, material culture etc. An additional limitation may be experienced by students who do not take the two-year sequence with the same teacher. 21
    In closing, I have a few final observations about the process of writing a syllabus. The success of any syllabus is largely dependent on the audience. What works well in terms of pacing one year may not work with another class. Making sure that the themes are focused enough to really narrow down the content possibilities will make it a less stressful course to teach. It is important to be able to provide your rationale for teaching world history and what the underlying objectives are (success on the AP exam, the building of skills, appreciation for diversity, understanding of historical trends so as to better understand the future, etc.) This is a course people either love or hate to teach. In order to enjoy it, the teacher needs to own the syllabus. By choosing case studies based on personal interests, periodically using photographs from travels, assigning excerpts from favorite literature, and by reaping the benefits of diversity in the classroom, students also will take ownership in the course. Connecting the past to the present regularly through themes and historical extensions also provides this link. Current events can help to understand the past. Writing a syllabus for a course is easier once it has been taught at least once so revision (of one’s own or someone else’s) will come easier than starting from scratch. Most importantly, the course needs to flow. How do the units transition from one to another? Do the overarching themes provide overall coherence? In choosing units of analysis, it helps to avoid compartmentalizing places and instead show how places, peoples and ideas have interacted through time. By regularly updating a syllabus with new scholarship and new ideas, teachers stay fresh and students remain engaged. Sharing syllabi is a enriching process for all involved. 22


Biographical Note: Deborah Johnston teaches world history at Lexington High School in Lexington, Massachusetts.


1 This column is based on parts of the author’s dissertation, Rethinking World History: Conceptual Frameworks for the World History Survey (2003). Specific model syllabi are available for Grade 9, 10, AP, College Early and Modern, and a Graduate Methods course at For further questions, contact

2 Stearns, Meaning over Memory: Recasting the Teaching of Culture and History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 135- 17.

3 Primary Source Workshop, January, 1998. Watertown, Massachusetts.

4 For me, the process of theme selection came from over 80 interviews with world history educators and historians, trial and error in the classroom, and reading world history. Bill Zeigler was one of the people instrumental in getting me thinking about how to make themes active.

5 There are many models in world history research that help to provide background for these approaches. For example, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, in Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature (New York: Free Press, 2002) organizes world history through environmental regions.

6 An example of this can be found in Donald Wright’s The World and a Very Small Place in Africa: A History of Globalization in Niumi, the Gambia (Armonk, N.Y. : M.E. Sharpe, 2004, 2nd edition). Wright follows a small place for a thousand years, placing events in global context and, as a result, probably reflecting the position of many Africans, Asians and Latin Americans in the nineteenth century.

7 Stearns, Meaning over Memory, 124-125.

8 Stearns, Meaning over Memory,167-68.



Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use