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World History and the Textbook Publisher Today

Christopher Johnson
Retired, McDougall Littell Publishing

    For a social studies teacher, world history is one of the most challenging and rewarding subjects in the entire school curriculum. From a publisher's perspective, developing a world history textbook is equally challenging and rewarding. The challenge for publishers comes from the sheer amount of material that has to be shaped into a coherent narrative that will engage adolescents. The reward comes from the opportunity to explore the unbelievably rich drama of human events that comprises world history, to identify stimulating visuals that support that drama, and to develop creative activities that teachers can use in their day-to-day teaching to bring the subject of world history alive for their students. The planning and development of world history textbooks has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, and these changes stem from four factors: (1) new scholarship in world history, (2) reforms in the school curriculum, (3) the emergence of new technologies, and (4) changes in the student population.
    The planning of world history textbooks starts with the curriculum standards that states and national organizations like the National Council for the Social Studies have written since the emergence of the standards movement in the mid-1990s. Partly because of the influence of the World History Association, several states, including California and Texas, have written world history standards that reflect new scholarship in world history, taking the course far beyond the Western civilization course that predominated in schools a generation ago. California has also been influential in introducing the study of world history in middle schools. In that state, students study ancient world history in 6th grade and medieval world history in 7th grade, while the high-school course focuses on modern world history. But no matter how the chronology is divided, the states, almost without exception, have prescribed the teaching of substantial content in all the major world civilizations, with a new emphasis on those in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Moreover, state standards challenge teachers and students to make comparisons and connections among the different civilizations so that students develop a richer understanding of the influences among cultures.
     Most world history textbooks have continued to thoroughly cover events that have traditionally been viewed as turning points in world history, such as the unification of China, the rise and fall of Greece and Rome, the Reformation, the French Revolution, the colonization of Africa and Asia, and the world wars. In addition, though, recent scholarship in world history has identified other key events in the life cycles of world civilizations that receive far greater emphasis in textbooks than was once the case. One example is the migration of Bantu-speaking peoples throughout southern Africa, which had a major impact on the language and culture of Africa. In many cases, state standards have identified such events, and textbooks have followed suit by devoting significant space to these topics.
    In selecting which specific events and trends will receive relatively greater or lesser emphasis in a textbook, publishers' editorial staffs work in collaboration with authors or senior consultants to develop detailed content plans. The editors then verify the choices in a number of ways: through comparisons with state standards, through in-depth discussions with experienced world history teachers, and through questionnaires sent to large samplings of world history teachers and social studies supervisors. The editors and authors then use this feedback to make adjustments in the content of the book. Only then does the writing of the textbook commence; the writing may be done by scholars from universities, independent scholars, former world history teachers, or experienced social studies writers. No matter which model for writing is followed, though, the manuscript goes through a rigorous review process by scholars in subspecialties in the field of world history. 4
    In secondary textbooks, one major challenge has been how to create a coherent narrative out of the widely varying content that states have mandated. In the high school world history textbook World History: Patterns of Interaction, published by McDougal Littell (where I was the Social Studies Editorial Director until my recently retirement), the approach to ensuring coherence was to (1) organize the content into units centered on overarching ideas, (2) ensure that all major civilizations were included in each unit, and (3) give students opportunities through questions and activities to make comparisons and connections among the civilizations. For example, the theme of Unit 3 of the textbook, covering the years 500 to 1500, is "exchange and encounter." In the course of the unit, students explore civilizations in Europe, Southwest Asia, East Asia, and Africa, with an emphasis on trade and other exchanges among the civilizations. Such unifying ideas are pedagogically beneficial because they help students see patterns in world history so that individual events begin to make sense. As a result, students develop a context for understanding events and begin to form conclusions about causes and effects of major events and trends in world history. 5
    One particular area of world history that has received greater attention recently is world religions and belief systems. The states have taken the lead in this area, mandating that world history courses include the origins and beliefs of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Confucianism. The origins of world religion are now featured prominently in the narrative of every high school world history textbook, and scholars in world religions are included as consultants to ensure accuracy and lack of bias. Each publisher has found its own way to present world religions to students in unbiased ways. The McDougal Littell textbook, for instance, includes a reference handbook entitled "World Religions and Belief Systems," which describes the beliefs, worship practices, and organization of the world's major religions.
    In addition to these far-reaching changes in content, another highly significant trend in world history textbooks over the past 20 years has been the increased use of visuals to convey information about culture, society, political history, and economic history. World history textbooks today feature a wealth of fine art, artifacts, architecture, photographs, illustrations, and political cartoons. The number of visuals and the quality of their reproduction are the result of two factors: changes in the technology of book production and changes in the population of students now entering the schools. In the production of books, computer technology permits textbook designers to reproduce art and integrate it into the text in ways that are far more sophisticated than was true 20 years ago. Today's students respond positively to the visual presentation of information because they have grown up in a media-saturated environment in which they are accustomed to receiving information through visual means.
    As a result, textbook editors and designers collaborate more than ever to coordinate visuals with written passages in the text. For example, sophisticated maps might show troop movements during key battles of the Napoleonic wars, World War I, and World War II. Similarly, photographs might illustrate the social relations between the British and Indians in 19th-century India, or paintings might reveal working conditions in a steel mill in Denmark during the late 1800s. Textbook designers also commission sophisticated illustrations to explain technological innovations, such as the structure of the Roman Colosseum, the building of castles and siege weapons, and the development of iron working. Moreover, accompanying questions challenge students to examine the content of such visuals and draw conclusions about culture and society. Another factor in selecting visuals is to develop and reinforce the unifying idea of each unit.
    Technology has also influenced world history textbooks by expanding the resources available to teachers and students outside the textbook. Every major publisher's world history program includes videos, test generators, Web sites, and PowerPoint presentations on CD-ROM. The test generators include numerous items, often leveled, that are correlated to state standards. The PowerPoint presentations provide teachers with even more visual resources, including fine art, artifacts, architecture, and political cartoons. These visuals are selected for the insights they provide into social and political history, for their potential to engage students' interest, and for their appropriateness for the age group. They are accompanied by critical thinking questions that require students to examine visual materials closely, make inferences, and draw conclusions about the social or political history represented in the visual.
    The states are nearly unanimous in mandating that primary sources play an increasingly important role in the teaching of world history, and technology has allowed publishers to increase the number of primary sources they include with their programs. Speeches, letters, diaries, and other primary source materials can be delivered on CD-ROM or on publishers' Web sites, giving teachers options for providing materials for their students. In addition, publishers are increasingly including document-based questions that incorporate primary sources. In these activities, students examine and answer questions about a series of primary sources, ranging from written sources to political cartoons, and then synthesize their findings through extended writing. In one primary-source-based activity that appears in the McDougal Littell textbook, students read different perspectives on imperialism from sources as disparate as J.A. Hobson's Imperialism, a speech in the British Parliament by Dadabhai Naoroji, a speech to the French National Assembly by Jules Ferry, and an American political cartoon on British imperialism. The students are then asked to analyze and compare these sources for the purpose of drawing conclusions about imperialism. Such activities give students a valuable opportunity to think about controversial issues in world history.
    One of the greatest challenges facing world history teachers today is the diversity of the student population, who come to school not only with different cultural heritages but with widely varying abilities in language and academic skills. In a single classroom, students may have English learners, gifted and talented students, and students with disabilities. To ensure the success of all the students, teachers must differentiate instruction for the different populations, and publishers try to help teachers achieve this goal by providing background knowledge, suggestions, activities, and materials that facilitate the process of differentiating instruction. For example, every publishers' world history program includes study guides that provide access to content for English learners, background information for teachers on appropriate pedagogical methods for students with disabilities, and activities to extend learning for gifted and talented students. One area in which both classroom practice and textbook design have converged to improve instruction is in the presentation of vocabulary. In world history textbooks today, such key terms as culture, civilization, feudalism, mercantilism, democracy, imperialism, and nationalism are explicitly defined with examples and then are tested in chapter assessments and in test-generator items. The presentation of vocabulary has become a major priority for all of the textbook publishers..
    In the next five to ten years, further changes will require world history textbooks to continue to evolve. World history scholarship will continue apace, and new findings will continue to be incorporated into textbooks. In addition, technology may ameliorate a common complaint about world history textbookstheir size and weight. The textbooks have grown in proportion to the number of state standards and the explosion of knowledge about non-Western societies. However, all of the major publishers now make their books available electronically, both on CD-ROM and on their Web sites, giving students access to non-print versions of the books. As schools turn increasingly to the use of electronic textbooks, the size and weight of textbooks may eventually become a moot issue. In addition, technology may make it easier for districts to orderand publishers to deliverversions of textbooks that are even more closely aligned with the curricula of individual districts. This trend is already evident in the availability of state-specific editions of world history textbooks.
   In conclusion, world history textbooks have changed dramatically in response to four overriding factors: (1) recent scholarship in world history that emphasizes a much more global approach to the study of world history, (2) corresponding changes in the world history curriculum in schools, (3) technology that modifies the ways in which textbooks are produced and the ways in which information is delivered to students, and (4) the increasing diversity of the student population in the United States. Just as world history has come into its own as a scholarly field of study in the past 20 years, so have world history textbooks had to evolve so that they continue to be effective tools that draw students into the study of world history and make the subject as relevant as possible to them. 13
Biographical Note: Christopher Johnson was the Social Studies Editorial Director at McDougal Littell, a division of Houghton Mifflin Company, until his retirement in January 2006. Before entering publishing, he taught language arts and social studies for a number of years. 14

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