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FORUM: Art in World History


Using Art to Develop Thinking Skills in the World History Classroom

Thomas Mounkhall


     Much of the effectiveness of a course in world history is based on the principle that World History teachers' planning, classroom teaching and assessment of learning should all be directly based on the academic goals set for their students at the beginning of the course. I have some very important goals for all of my students including: understanding World History as world historians view the field, developing a thematic approach to the discipline and building the skills necessary to plan and support a credible written argument about a World History issue. However, the single most important academic goal for my students is the development of sophisticated thinking skills. These I characterize as constructed learning, compare/contrast, relationships over time and place, multiple causation and meta-cognition. The classroom teaching ideas in this article address all of the above goals, but they certainly emphasize cognitive skill development.

     The use of art to teach World History, while meeting the above goals, has enormous potential. The subject matter is visual, colorful and sometimes concrete, all of which relates well to the many visual learners in our classrooms. The objects of art are primary sources of their time and place and can tell students much about the cultural groups that produced them. For my purposes, they can be employed very effectively either to introduce or reinforce sophisticated thinking, especially when used in tandem with constructed learning techniques.

Constructed Learning

     Constructed learning theory is a very powerful idea that certainly informs my teaching. Simply put, it is the notion that students learn new data best when they are assisted by the educator in connecting the new information with already learned concepts or themes. A painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe is an excellent vehicle for reinforcing the cognitive skill of constructed learning. For demonstration purposes, let us assume that my students have already learned what these five World History concepts mean in general: imperialism, cultural diffusion, cultural synthesis, ethnocentrism and continuity. In fact, by the time in the survey when we are studying New Spain, all five of the aforementioned themes would definitely have been taught and reinforced.

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Image of Virgin.  

     I would split the entire class up into five smaller groups of about 5-6 students per group. Each group would then copy the five themes from the white board. Their tasks would be: a) attentively listen and watch the data about the Virgin of Guadalupe to be presented and b) discuss within the group for the purpose of identifying an example of each theme in the Guadalupe data.

     During the group discussions, the teacher should address meta-cognition by identifying the type of thinking going on by pointing to the line for constructed knowledge on the classroom wall cognitive skill chart. The group discussions should be followed by feedback from group members with which they specifically articulate the relationship of the Guadalupe data and one of the World History themes. This is the point where the educator can suggest additional data about the image and New Spain. Students not speaking are to take notes on the concepts and examples, which they will add to their cumulative World History theme notebook section for homework.

Compare and Contrast

     A second thinking skill that can be taught and reinforced through the use of global art is the ability to compare and contrast World History objects in a sophisticated manner. Sculpture works very well in this regard. Statues of the Buddha from the Theravada and Mahayana traditions are excellent vehicles to address this educational goal. I think that this lesson fits best in the Post Classic section of the survey.

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Paired Buddha Images.  

     In this lesson, I would have the large class broken up into pre-arranged pairs of students. They would all be shown two sculptures of the Buddha on a split screen. One statue would be from the Mahayana tradition of East Asia while the second image would be from the Theravada School of Southeast Asia. Each pair would have a compare/contrast chart to fill in as they carefully study the sculptures. It is very important for the educator to specify what aspects of the statues are to be focused on. My students would pay close attention to the facial expressions, body types, sitting postures and hand gestures. Once the charts are completed, students would listen to and take notes on a short teacher lecture on the important differences between these two schools of Buddhism. Theravada would be described as the older of the two traditions, marking its existence from the time of the historical Buddha himself. Followers of this tradition follow the example of the Buddha and pursue individual enlightenment through a life of asceticism. The Mahayana tradition would be placed during the Post Classic period as the belief system diffused from its home in India north and east to China, Japan and Korea. Adherents of this school believe that Bodhisattvas will assist them in their journey to enlightenment, which will not be as arduous as the Theravada Buddhist way. Using this knowledge, pairs of students will discuss and decide which of the images is Theravada and which is Mahayana in origin. While this discussion is occurring, the educator, once again, should point to compare/contrast on the wall meta-cognitive chart so that student will be aware of the type of cognitive skill they are developing.

Relationships over Time and Place/Meta-cognition

     A third cognitive skill that could be developed through the classroom use of art is the notion that event A from a certain time and place can have significant influence on subsequent event B from a very different time and place. This thinking skill of relationships over time and place can be well evidenced by the influence of the French Revolution on the independence of Haiti.

Figure 3
  Figure 3: Image of Ataturk.  

     In a classroom setting, I would show my students a photo of Ataturk sitting with two other people on a terrace. My students would then be asked to make a list of significant details in the photo such as his clothing, his female companion, her clothing, the setting and the sitting arrangement of the group. Once it is determined that both Ataturk and his female companion are wearing Western European clothing, are sitting very close to each other on a western style terrace and that the woman is not covered in traditional Islamic garb, the stage would be set for developing and/or reinforcing the cognitive skill of seeing relationships across time and place. The class would be broken up into five smaller groups and each group would be assigned one of the following, previously taught events: French Revolution, the First World War, Rise of the West-post Industrial Revolution, Development of the Nation State- post 1850 c.e. and the Rise of Western European feminism in the context of the post First World War era. The groups would be given some class time to discuss the assigned connection. This would be followed by a large group discussion in which each group would articulate the connections they have identified. While this discussion is going on, the teacher or a student should gently point to the cognitive skill chart hanging on the classroom wall. By tapping on the line for relationships across time and place while the class discussion is occurring, meta-cognitive learning will simultaneously take place.

Multiple Causation

     The Taj Mahal in Agra, India is an excellent teaching tool for the purpose of developing and/or reinforcing the cognitive skill of multiple causation. I would start my lesson with this essay assignment: Was the Creation of the Taj Mahal more a Function of Cross-Regional or Internal Causation? Once the students understood the task, I would distribute an essay rubric that would act as a guide in their pre-writing. The rubric would be followed with a visual organizer that addresses the essay task and which students will fill out during the lesson. Content about the Taj would follow in the form of lecture and photos which the students will place on the visual organizer in the appropriate area.

Figure 4
  Figure 4: Image of Taj Mahal.  

     Examples of content to be addressed are as follows: Arabs brought Islam to Central Asia, Delhi Sultans brought Islam to India from Central Asia, Mughals conquered northern India from Afghanistan, Mughals brought Persian water garden technology to India, Khyber Pass was the entry for Muslims into India, Persian water garden at the Taj has a huge lotus pool in the center, Hindu craftsmen did most of the work on the Taj and the four minarets are topped with chattris-symbolic Hindu umbrellas. The lesson would have more data but these examples make the pedagogical point. For homework the students would have to decide their answers to the questions and write a thesis statement to that effect. During the next class, the distributed rubric would be filled in during a class discussion of the Taj and multiple causation, which would take place in the context of students being reminded of the type of cognitive activity they were involved in.


     In my view, any assessment should have as its primary goal the reinforcement of prior learning. Consequently, my assessment of student learning in the context of the learning activities described above, would be designed to identify if the emphasized cognitive skills had actually been learned and/or improved. For the theme/example assessment, I would show the photo of Ataturk and his friends on the terrace and ask students to find examples of these important World History themes: secularism, westernization, nationalism, feminism etc. The thinking skill of compare/contrast could be assessed by showing students the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe used in this article and the image of the Virgin based on the Book of Revelations 12:1-3. I would then give my students a compare/contrast chart, which they would use as an outline for an essay on the topic. The chart would include such aspects as person, time of composition, place of composition, flora, clothing, base, periphery of figure etc. Upon completion, students would be asked to compose a cogent argument in response to this essay question: Compare and contrast the images of the Catholic Virgin Mary from the Book of Revelations and the Guadalupe narrative. For my assessment of the cognitive skill of identifying relationships over time and place, I would use the image of the Virgin Of Guadalupe from 1531 Mexico City. Once the details of the image had been discussed, I would ask students to select any three of these World History events and discuss its partial influence on the Guadalupe image: Cortez conquering the Aztecs in 1519 the voyages of Columbus from 1492 on, the demise of the Mongol road system during the 14th century, the Spanish Reconquista, the writings of the early Christians e.g. Book of Revelation from the 2nd century, 15th century religious wars of the Protestant Reformation, pre-Spanish Aztec temple to mother-goddess Tonantzin located on the hill where Catholics believe the appearance of the Virgin Mary took place. Finally, my assessment of the cognitive skill of multiple causation would be in the correcting and re-writing of the Taj Mahal essay according to the distributed essay.


     In summary, art has great potential as a teaching vehicle for the purpose of developing sophisticated thinking skills in World History students. This short article has demonstrated classroom teaching techniques that will result in the development of the following cognitive skills: constructed learning, compare/contrast, relationships over time and place, multiple causation and meta-cognition. All of the included assessment models address the principle of using assessment for the primary purpose of reinforcing prior cognitive skill learning.

Thomas Mounkhall is a World History consultant living in New York State and a consultant for SUNY-Ulster. He has trained World History teachers across the United States and in Cambodia. He also is the author of numerous articles in World History Connected and other publications. He can be reached at


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