teaching

Backward Design for a Backwards History Survey

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on November 27, 2012

Next semester I am planning to try something new with my HIST 118 course, which is listed in the schedule as “The United States, 1848 to the Present.” I am going to teach the course backwards—from the present to 1848.

I’ve been considering a backwards survey course for several years, ever since I encountered the idea on Rob MacDougall’s blog. That post pointed to two examples (here and here) of historians who have done this before. Although the idea has remained controversial, I still find it compelling—at least enough to give it a shot.

Deciding to give something a shot is easy; deciding what you’re shooting for is not. For this to work, I realize I have to begin by thinking explicitly about goals and desired outcomes.

Mark Sample and others have referred to this goal-centered approach to course-planning as “the backward design process.” Instead of starting with content and working towards the course’s objectives, designing a course backwards means deciding what students should understand by the end—a decision no less important, and arguably more important, when course conventions are scrambled.

This post, then, is my attempt to think through a “backward design” for a backward survey. It is not the syllabus for the course (you can find that here); it’s a set of reminders to myself that I will revisit throughout the year to make sure I’m aiming in the right direction.

Teaching Backwards

My primary reasons for teaching the survey backwards are similar to those that others have named:

  • When learning new material in any discipline, it usually helps to proceed from the most familiar content to the least familiar.
  • Questions like “how did things get the way they are?” or “how far back do we have to go to find the roots of this problem?” are usually more interesting—and more recognizable as historical problems—than questions like “what happened next?”
  • Historians’ own questions often have their roots in reflections on the present, or reflections on what came before a pivotal juncture; starting a course in the same way “uncovers,” as Lendol Calder puts it, what working historians often do.
  • Starting in the present helps students see the relevance of history even today, prompting excitement about the study of the more distant past.

This last rationale is perhaps the most important of all. One of my primary goals in any history course is to convince students that history and historical thinking matter to their lives and in the world today. Historians believe this already; as Kenneth Stampp (quoted here) put it, “With the historian it is an article of faith that knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present.” Anything that may help students adopt that same article of faith is worthy of serious consideration.

I suspect most students already believe on some level that history does matter; after all, they have always been required to study the past. Their minds are also well-stocked with clichés about being doomed to repeat the past if they don’t. At the same time, however, students I have met often complain that the history courses they took in high school never made it past World War II or the 1960s. As Annette Atkins notes, “Such courses are something like picking up a mammoth biography that walks us day by day through a person’s childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, but trails off (or wears us out) before getting to the adulthood that had drawn us to the book in the first place.”

Such courses may also explain the frustration that I recently heard when I asked a small group of first-year students at Rice why we should study history. All agreed that we should study history, for reasons that kept mentioning the present. “I personally study history to better understand how the world got the way it is today,” said one student. Another evocatively compared human life to being born in the midst of a sequel, requiring each of us to pick up the prequel if we want to understand what’s happening around us.

Another student confessed, however, that studying the past often feels like watching CNN footage from some distant part of the world you’ve never heard of before; it prompts the vague sense that what you’re seeing affects you in some way, but it’s not exactly clear how. Without clarity on that point, this student suggested, history can start to seem just like “a series of events.” If those series of events never terminate in the actual present, it’s not hard to see why students would have trouble squaring their belief that history is important with courses that present the past only as a far-off, foreign country.

Disappointment with these sorts of courses may be one reason why whenever I have mentioned my plan to undergraduates, I’m instantly met by more excitement and interest than I’ve ever received when describing another course. Of course, the plea that students often make for their subjects to be “relevant” can sometimes be misguided or crudely instrumental (“when am I going to use this?”), but it is also a valid concern. Can we blame students for doubting history’s importance to understanding their lives if we never reach their own lifetimes, never talk explicitly about how the present is informed by the past? Students rightly desire a chance to test their inchoate sense that history is important against the data that they presumably know best—the data gathered from their day-to-day experience.

Taking students’ own lifetimes as a starting point does raise the danger of “presentism”—in the sense of anachronism. To some extent the past really is like a foreign country, as John Fea recently reminded his students, and not every “series of events” will lead to “us.” Confusion on this point is always a danger, however, and it may actually be mitigated by a “backwards” approach. It is hard for students to avoid thinking anachronistically about a period before they really know when certain events occurred or began; moving backward in time may have an advantage here, in that an instructor can easily remind students that each new generation studied has not yet witnessed any of the events we have already talked about in class.

I also hope that teaching backwards will help ward off another kind of “presentism”—in the sense of favoritism towards the present. One signature of historical thinking is to realize that even the present is “historical”—that our choices, no less than the choices made by people in the past, are conditioned and sometimes constrained either by what has come before or by what we remember. Yet the instinctive answer that many people give to the question of “why study history”—so that we don’t have to repeat it—has a way of making the present an exceptional vantage point, turning us into observers and the past into the observed.

Indeed, the dictum that those who fail to study the past are doomed by it implies that we study the past primarily in order to be free of its clutches. Ultimately, I want students to reach the quite different understanding, articulated most clearly by Karl Marx, that “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

That dictum highlights (in a way unique to the discipline of history) that the circumstances of human life are “transmitted” not just from biology or contemporary social and political arrangements, but also from “the past.” It hints that human choices are shaped not just by the past but also by memories of the past—by the dreams about history, whether good or bad, that continually play in the minds of the living. Most of all, it presents the present as no less “historical” than the past. We make our history under a particular set of circumstances, just as people before us did.

My greatest hope is that teaching backwards can help lead students to this understanding. By moving away from the present over the course of a semester, instead of inexorably towards it, perhaps they will start to think of the present itself as less familiar and more of a foreign country than they thought—a time that also needs close, historical study in order to be fully understood.

Teaching Historical Thinking

Drawing on the work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Mark Sample’s post on “Planning a Course with Backward Design” invites teachers to:

Imagine a set of three concentric rings. The outer ring represents knowledge “worth being familiar with” for students. The middle ring encapsulates knowledge and skills “important to know and do.” Finally, the smallest ring, the inner ring, represents “enduring understanding”—the fundamental ideas you want to students to remember days and months and years later, even after they’ve forgotten the details of the course.

So far I’ve been talking mainly about the “inner ring,” what Sample calls “the bullseye of your target.” But what about the actual content of the course—the outer rings that will hopefully direct students to the central goal? What should a United States history survey contain?

For a long time most history professors (including myself) have answered that question in a way that swaps the outer and middle rings of Sample’s target: what was most important was to cover knowledge that history students needed to be familiar with as comprehensively as possible; learning the “skills” of a working historian could be put off to later, post-survey courses.1

The logic behind this choice has typically been based on the premise that students may only take one United States history course in their college careers, making it essential to help them get “the facts” straight. As I’ve argued before, however, the premise that “this is the only history class they will ever take” does not settle the question of what they should be taught, even if it does make that question more urgent. And with each course I teach I’m coming to see the wisdom of those who argue that the survey’s main goal should be to teach “historical thinking”—to “uncover” what working historians do instead of “covering” a static body of material.

The primary proponents of this idea, like Sam Wineburg and Lendol Calder, argue that the introductory survey should bear the mark of history’s “signature.” In his well-known 2006 article on “uncoverage,” Calder defines this signature as six “cognitive habits” he wants his students to develop: “questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternate perspectives, and recognizing limits to one’s knowledge.” John Fea recently cited a slightly different list called “The Five C’s”: change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. David J. Voelker elaborates on these lists to arrive at this definition of historical “understanding”:

First and foremost, a student who understands history realizes that historians are engaged in an ongoing conversation about the past and that they must rely on a variety of primary sources, emanating from a variety of perspectives, in order to construct narratives and interpretations. Engaging in historical discourse, furthermore, requires several other abilities, including: awareness of continuity and change over time, of the multitudinous ways in which the past differs fundamentally from the present while the present is nevertheless rooted in the past; recognition that past events developed within a complex context, within a web of causality where multiple causes and effects were densely connected; consciousness of the contingency of past events, of the advantages and disadvantages of relying on hindsight; and an ability to judge the relative significance of past events.

Whether referred to as “cognitive habits” or remembered by alliteration, these are the skills of historical thinking that should make up the “middle circle” of my target.

I believe that aiming for this middle ring is essential precisely because students will be confronted throughout their lives with claims about the past. Even if mine is the only formal history course they ever take, next semester will not be the only time students are curious about history or confronted by a historical claim. And at those times, getting information about the past—dates, names, and basic narratives—will not be the problem students face.

As Sam Wineburg put it in a recent interview, “Becker’s notion of ‘every man his own historian’ has never been more pertinent than in the age of Google. Students know how to find information but many are ill-equipped to answer whether that information should be believed in the first place.” Even more are ill-equipped to evaluate whether factual information is being used in the service of a misleading or partial interpretation of the past. Focusing my efforts on “historical thinking” will, I hope, better prepare students to critically analyze the history and pseudo-history they will encounter throughout their lives, whether at the movies, on cable news, or in written form.

At this point, Wineburg, Calder, and others would push the case for “uncoverage” one step further. They argue that “teaching historical thinking” and “covering content” are almost mutually exclusive aims; history professors who try to do both, or only the latter, end up doing neither.

I’m not sure whether that’s true in the case of every history professor, but it seems to be true of me. The last time I taught the survey course, I made gestures towards trying to engage students in analyzing primary sources, questioning, and contextualizing. But much of the course was still built around lectures designed to follow what I had already decided, from day one, were the “major storylines” for our period. And at the end of the semester, I was unsatisfied with what I had done.

As I wrote in a “note to myself” at the end of that semester (something various Profhacker writers have also recommended), “Ideally I want students to think critically about the present” so that they will be able to analyze and evaluate the “talking heads” who tell them what the lessons of history are …

but how can I do that if I’m basically just another talking head? The only feeble attempts I made at involving them in the learning process were reading responses that I never really talked about in class and graded hurriedly; a Wiki timeline that basically became busy work because I made it due so late and never integrated the stories they were finding into my lectures …, and hastily answered questions. This class needs to be redesigned from the ground up.

That total “redesign” is clearly what I’m embarking on now, and I’m doing so armed with three primary take-aways from the scholarship on “uncoverage” that I have read:

  1. A course in “historical thinking” must be “question driven.” It should teach students how to ask good historical questions and how to construct meaningful answers to those questions.
  2. Historians deal with both primary historical texts and with secondary historical debates; thinking historically means being able to work with both kinds of discourse and assess them on their own terms. In the case of primaries, this means learning how to “source” and “contextualize” a document, as well as learning how to connect it with others to form new questions, narratives and arguments; in the case of historiography, this means learning how to understand the nature of historical disagreements, evaluate interpretations, and assess a writer’s use of evidence.
  3. Students benefit from “routine.” Lendol Calder has been the biggest advocate of this, arguing that students unfamiliar with an “uncoverage” course need to have set routines that orient them. This will be even more important for me given the disorientation some students will doubtless feel in a “backwards” course. Learning new ways of thinking, Calder contends, also requires iterative practice.

Fortunately, I think a chronologically “backwards” course like the one Annette Atkins teaches lends itself beautifully to the first and third of these guidelines. As she describes it, students start by generating questions about issues that matter to them in the present, and then work backwards from those questions. After doing this once, they later repeat the exercise beginning in 1860—introducing the kind of routine that Calder advocates, too.

Atkins’s model also includes some attention to the second guideline I’ve named. Although her course uses a textbook and does not include much discussion of historiographical debate, students do read primary source accounts to generate questions about nineteenth-century issues that may not have occurred to them but were clearly on the minds of historical actors.

Drawing on Atkins’s example as well as Calder’s, right now I’m envisioning a Monday-Wednesday-Friday course structured roughly like this. After a couple of introductory weeks spent discussing issues in the present and generating questions about them (as Atkinds does), the course will settle into a predictable routine:

  • Wednesday: Students will come to class having read or viewed a set of primary sources, drawn from a generation of Americans who lived roughly two decades earlier than those discussed the week before. An assignment before class will require students to investigate some factual question raised by the sources (a name they didn’t recognize, an event they hadn’t heard of before) and to write up a list of new interpretive questions and issues generated by these sources. We will discuss those questions and issues in class and settle on a “top three” or top four we want to investigate further. We will also discuss whether these sources help us answer any of the questions raised and left outstanding in earlier weeks, paying special attention to the provenance and context of the sources under discussion.
  • Friday: I’ll prepare and present a lecture that focuses on trying to answer one of the questions we flagged in class on Wednesday, using the lecture to model how a working historian goes about thinking through a question.
  • Monday: Students will come to class prepared to discuss a set of articles by historians who address another of the “top” questions flagged on Wednesday.

The process will then begin again with a new set of primary sources on Wednesday. Throughout the semester, however, I’ll also schedule some breathing room and make some “back to the future” assignments that encourage reflection on how what we’ve learned so far helps us to answer questions raised by later events (later in time—earlier in the semester), either about causality, change over time, or contingency (was another series of events possible, and if so, at what point was the fateful die cast that led to the present?).

I have no illusions that this first attempt at a new way of teaching the survey will go perfectly smoothly. Clearly, I still have a lot to settle about the precise form of these assignments, as well as about the schedule of the course.2 As I finish that process of course-planning, however, I feel better that I’m designing “in reverse”—not from a set of things I feel I have to cover, but from a set of objectives that I’m aiming at. Stay tuned to see how it turns out …


  1. If you haven’t yet, be sure to read Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voelker, “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model,” Journal of American History (March 2011), 1050–1066, available online. Sipress and Voelker show both that the “coverage” model of the survey itself has a history of fairly recent vintage, and that it has had critics from the beginning.

  2. I feel mostly excitement about this idea, but whatever anxiety I feel comes mostly from the “choose your own adventure” layout of the course. Will I be able to improvise lectures, topics and readings from week to week, while making sure to push students, where appropriate, into areas of inquiry that they may prefer not to investigate but which are crucial to answering questions they’ve asked? I’m taking a leap of faith that the rewards of following lines of inquiry generated collaboratively with students will outweigh the labor costs on my end.