In every curricular choice a teacher makes, there are fifteen un-choices of things to leave out. I mean, in 6th grade History, we're supposed to cover the emergence of human beings from hominids through until the fall of Rome. And in English we're supposed to teach research techniques and writing, narrative writing, literary analysis, argumentation, logical fallacies, and a more sophisticated writing style than in K-5.
In a year.
The way I decide what gets dropped is often based primarily on my own background knowledge.
For Egypt, I had a show about a guy walking the entire length of the Nile River. I had a documentary on modern Egyptian cuisine and how it is a direct result of thousands of years of ancient Egyptian cuisine (did you know Egyptians were the ones who invented leavened bread?). I had far more background and understanding of African history and culture, due to my degree focus being on the politics and literature of post-colonial Africa. I also had games that simulated building the pyramids, making a mummy, and going on a 1920's British archeological dig.
For Mesopotamia, I had a cartoon version of Gilgamesh, some knowledge of the use of cuneiform, as well as some Minecraft simulations from the guy who used to have my job.
Clearly, I spent more time on the Egypt unit than the Mesopotamia one.
But (and I know this may be controversial) I'm not sure it really matters.
Today, we talked about social class in ancient Egypt, and the kids did some actual historical analysis of primary sources: letters from ordinary Egyptians. They had to read these documents, decode the main idea, the purpose and the audience. They also had to use these letters to make inferences about what was meaningful and valuable to the real people who wrote and read them. I saw students make connections between the content of the letters and nearly every other text and unit we've studied together - even Gilgamesh! I saw them struggle with the language, but instead of giving up, they used the collaborative process to clarify and sharpen their understanding. I also saw them triumph and pick up important details I didn't think they'd get.
And that is the point, isn't it? Does it really matter if they know more discrete facts about Sumerian culture than Nubian culture? Does it matter that they know Hammurabi's Code in detail, or be able to see the difference in the dynastic mummification techniques?
I'd argue that no, those things don't really matter. What matters more is learning the tools of the discipline - in this case, how to think, read and write as a historian.
I remember the exact moment where I knew I was going to be a history major. My first history professor in college, Dr. Hamilton, said that he didn't care if we knew dates of anything. He cared about us knowing cause and effect. He cared about us being able to see patterns and recognise the significance of historical trends. He wanted us to FEEL and EXPERIENCE history, not just read about a bunch of dead people who did things a long time ago.
After high school history that was lackluster at best and indoctrination at worst (my teacher actually boasted about indoctrinating all of his students. No joke.), I found something that I could love: historical narrative. Stories about people who had lived a long time ago but whose lives were more like mine than I ever thought.
That's what I try to give my students. It's so easy to default to Great Man History or the History of Warfare, because those are simple narratives that are attractive to textbook publishers. Simplicity is always favoured over complexity in K-12 textbooks (and honestly, that's also a reflection of our society's lack of ability to deal with complexity, but that's another post).
But in valuing simplicity over complexity and ambiguity, we're doing our students a disservice.
I told my kids today that what they were doing was something I didn't do until college - look at primary sources and make inferences and meaning for myself, with the help of a teacher who could put the source in context for me. And frankly, the results were astonishing. I had a better discussion in my class today than in most of my high school history classes, and even some of my college history classes.
By pushing a parade of discrete facts and places over teaching historical thinking skills, we end up dumbing down the content to the point that the content becomes useless. It's easy to look at an 11 year old and think that they're not ready for primary source analysis. It's much more challenging to let them try. Even if they fail - and they will!
I think it's important to have a certain amount of historical content in order to apply those skills of thinking like a historian. But I also think that history teachers over-teach and under-use historical thinking skills.
And the real skill in teaching history is finding that balance: the balance between providing context and pushing constructivism.
The balance between content and skills.
The balance between spoon-feeding and kicking off the training wheels.
It's a balance I'm still trying to figure out.