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Curriculum Redux

Deborah Smith Johnston


     Many teachers love the experience of teaching AP World History since it always feels fresh; there is always new scholarship and new areas to explore in more depth. The flip side of that is that there is simply so much to teach, know and absorb that this means that selectivity is a key part of teacher preparation. And yet, how do we choose where to deliver broad strokes and where to dig deep? What should our criteria for selection be? The Advance Placement World History course redesign provides parameters to help guide us in making these choices.

     The new curriculum framework uses key concepts for each time period which focus on "global processes and themes rather than on specific historical facts or events," in this way allowing teachers the ability to "choose examples that interest them or their students to demonstrate the concept." Through the use of the familiar themes, and the new more specific key concepts, there is now a clearer set of ideas that students should know to succeed. For each time period there are three or four key concepts with sub-topics that draw out the essential core knowledge on that concept. There are choices embedded within these guidelines where teachers can select which illustrative example they want to use to explicate the idea. This case study method should work well in preparing students for a rigorous, but manageable, course and exam. They still need to draw upon specific facts, but they will have more choice in determining which examples to use relevant to their own studies.

     An example of this case study method is seen within Key Concept 5.2 on Imperialism and Nation-State Formation. Students are asked to know about the use of warfare and diplomacy to establish empires in Africa but do not need to know about all the experiences of how this happened. Their class might have focused primarily on the experience of Belgium in the Congo, perhaps using the great Choices simulation on King Leopold and the investigations that unfolded as a result of the abuses there.1 Or within that that same key concept teachers may decide to illustrate an example of settler colonies by having students think about any one of a variety of possibilities including the ones listed as examples: the British in southern Africa, Australia and New Zealand; or the French in Algeria; or they could discuss the British in Canada. The focus here is on making sure that students understand the key concepts by using factual evidence that they explored in their individual classrooms.

     I am excited by the new Periodization of the course. First, the division of the course into six concrete time periods allows for more emphasis than previously on the time period before 600 B.C.E. Additionally, the use of 1900 as a breaking point between the last two eras also shifts an emphasis from 1914 as the global beginning of the 20th century. This reflects new scholarship in world history that presents more global and big historical perspectives. Second of all, the time periods are given thematic names which have students focus in on some of the key concepts for that era. For example, instead of Foundations we will be teaching students first about the Technological and Environmental Transformations and then the Organization and Reorganization of Human Societies. These help students to focus in on the key ideas of what they need to know about those times. As explained in the frameworks, Periodization is also an historical thinking skill. Making this idea real to students by having them debate the periodization of the course, of the textbook, and of other schemas makes them better able to question the underlying assumptions of how historians create order out of history.

     I have had my students do periodization debates in the past where they had to argue for and against a particular characterization of an era (lesson plan link). For example, a student might be asked to both defend and refute the labeling of the Age of Exploration as being the time from 1450-1600. Some students might argue this time should start earlier so as to include the Vikings, or even the Polynesians, others might argue that it should only go so far back as to include Zheng He. Students could however also assert that 1450-1600 was the time of greatest intensity of exploration, despite its European emphasis. This helps them to not only think about time but also figure out what were the salient features that should be drawn from that period (and who wrote the textbooks that determine the periodization names and breakdowns.)

     In conclusion, the new changes to the curriculum framework address several needs that have been part of discussions at the AP readings for years. Our frustrations around the need for embedded choice, student understanding of global historical context, and the breadth of the course will be alleviated, at least in part, by these changes. It is my belief that these modifications will maintain the rigor of the course, while providing more guidance, particularly for teachers who were not trained as world historians, and supplying a periodization framework that reflects new scholarship.

Deborah Smith Johnston teaches world history at Lakeside School in Seattle. She has been involved with the AP course since 2001 and has attended the reading every year since the course launched. Having written her dissertation in world history on the use of periodization and themes in the teaching of world history, she values the thought that has gone into the design, and redesign, of the course. She can be contacted at


1 Choices curriculum unit. Colonialism in the Congo: Conquest, Conflict, and Commerce, 3rd edition. Available at



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