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Teacher Reviews

Editors' note: This feature is meant to provide practical, although not unbiased, reviews of textbooks based on experience in the classroom. Readers will note that the teachers who wrote these reviews differ widely in terms of what they seek in a textbook. Moreover, these reviews are not meant to advocate or discourage the adoption of any one text. Rather, they seek to begin a dialogue about textbook use that we hope will continue long past the posting of this issue. Indeed, we would like to encourage other teachers—both at the secondary and at the university-level—to send us comparable reviews of texts for inclusion in later issues of World History Connected.  

Peter Stearns, Michael Adas, Stuart Schwartz, Marc Jason Gilbert, World Civilizations: The Global Experience, 5th edition (New York: Longman, 2006).  
    When instructors on a listserv ask which is the best world history textbook, I always reply that the answer depends on the instructor’s own teaching strategy. Ironically, that truth was driven home to me through a change in my own teaching approach and my ability to help work corresponding changes in Stearns et. al, World Civilizations: the Global Experience, of which I am a co-author.  This text is well known for its focus on the process of world history and necessarily by the themes that dominate that process, from migration to technology and from gender to trade. In recent editions, efforts have been to make these processes more visible, while also making them more accessible. For example, each chapter of the forthcoming fifth edition will have very dramatic introductions to the central events and themes of the chapter, clearer chronological arrangement, and concluding sections that leave the reader in no doubt where they have been. These changes became more necessary as I myself changed my teaching approach, one wrought by the increasing unwillingness of students to take responsibility for their own learning, such as by not even looking through, let alone reading, a textbook!  This change, more obvious over the past four years, forced a change in my expectations and use of the textbook, which was formerly used mainly as a mirror of my own lecture content.
    Many instructors, faced with declining student interest in formal learning strategies (“Dude, science is just a bunch of theories!”) have understandably adopted the adage that “if you cannot beat them, join them,” and have abandoned textbooks. However, I decided to shift much of my student’s learning activities and examinations to text content (self-contained documents and essays), to self-testing on the supporting web page and its web-based critical thinking exercises. My aim was to force students to adopt an active learning approach in which the harder they work and the more they engage in critical thinking, the higher the grade they get. But to accomplish this task they had to be given the tools of an accessible main text with associated interactive web resources, flawless test banks, never–fail or duplicate sourced web links and challenging in-text documents and essays. Coincidentally, I, in my classroom practice, and the other authors undergoing their own self-examinations found that even the third edition and a quick turnaround fourth edition to add discussion-based questions did not meet the highest standard of service to such an approach. Hopefully, by our own efforts and through consultative work from several much admired experts on world history teaching methodology, the fifth edition will meet that standard.  However, even the third edition has supported my shift in approach to textbooks from a partner in story-telling to a partner in promoting learning. The results have been dramatic. 2
    Though my world history classes have more than 60 students, they feel more like seminars; grades have gone up during the semester as students bought into the course; there is more laughter in class (because of the students’ rising confidence in their growing ability to learn) and they have even come to accept responsibility for poor performance. A miracle?  No. Any text which mirrors an instructor’s own view of world history (in my case processes, rather than cultural moments or events) and delivers the tools necessary for the student to grasp them though lively narrative and good text support materials can do that. And so we return to the beginning: a text is only as useful as it suits the aims of the instructor. My aims have changed over time and my use of that text has been able to change to suit it.

Marc Jason Gilbert
North Georgia College and State University


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