Excerpted from: The Pedagogical Strengths of Teaching History Backwards
Kenneth W. Hermann
What is it that I want my students to carry with them after taking a single history class? Following
9/11 and the dismal level of historical understanding news reporters and commentators showed about the Middle East, I decided that I would much rather have them know something about Afghanistan and Iraq than remembering when the Spanish invaded South America. That led me to teaching this course backwards.
In brief my syllabus was as follows:
· 3-4 weeks on the history of a single civilization -- Afghanistan (Middle East),
China, Rwanda (Africa), Costa Rica (Central America). (I preferred to take core
samples of several key civilizations than attempt a superficial survey of every
one. I discovered that insights gained in understanding these four in greater depth
enabled them to understand others not studied more quickly.)
· they read a book on the contemporary situation in each civilization, e.g. Rashid on
· my first lecture on each civ. Set up the historical context of the post-WWII period
in each civilization; it ended with the question: What do we need to know about
the earlier history of this civ. to better understand the present? -- always lots of
good questions from them -- I then assigned them to find answers to those
questions and bring them to the next class. There was always plenty of discussion
and lots of good connections being made.
· each subsequent lecture went further back in time until we reached the 16th c., the
'beginning' of the course.
Most students loved this approach, even those who said they had 'hated' history in the
past. It finally made sense to them.
I found that there were many pedagogical advantages to this approach.
- It is a cardinal rule of teaching that we ought to Go from the known to the
unknown; start with what students currently understand and use that as a basis for
introducing new concepts and material to them. Yet history teachers violate that
principle all of the time. We assume that the place to 'begin' is with the
chronologically prior. But that is surely questionable since students are the least
familiar with the distant past -- as are we. Why not 'begin' a history course with
the present, the period of history most students at least think they know something
- Moving from present to the past is quite common in our experience.
Counsellors offer their clients help in resolving current difficulties in their life by
uncovering the roots of their problems buried in their past. Those of us who keep journals
find perspective in our lives by reflecting on our entries, from present to past.
This is exactly how the police solve crimes and lawyers build their cases: start
with the current crime or law suit and work backward to collect the evidence and
piece it together. Who doesn't enjoy a good PBS mystery -- Adam Dalgliesh,
Hetty Winthrop, Inspector Morse, Miss Marple, Perot, Sherlock Holmes, or my
favorite, Brother Cadfael? They keep our interest by Proceeding slowly from
known to unknown. Most of us professional historians, I suspect, discovered our
primary research areas in the same way. We 'began' with a problem that intrigued
us, and then probed and dug deeper and deeper into the history of that problem to
untangle its complexities. It only makes sense to teach history in the same way.
I have discovered to my pleasant surprise that Students grasped complex patterns
and causal relationships with this approach that they have rarely done with the
traditional approach. We say that we want students to understand causal patterns,
but these are very difficult for students to identify in the traditional format.
Students have told me that everything seems so cut and dried by marching
forward -- this happened, then that happened -- that it was difficult to conceive
history happening in any other way.
- In teaching history backwards, on the other hand, we are constantly asking "What
must have happened in the past to have gotten to this point?" Students are
shocked by a country with the highest percentage of Christians in Africa plunging
into genocidal mayhem in Rwanda; coffee farmers eeking out a living for
generations in South America; the repressive Taliban regime coming to power
years after their liberation from the Russians; and the conflagration of the Civil
War and the failed promises of Reconstruction. It is natural to ask why. Their
curiosity is piqued and they start probing and digging. They have a puzzle to
- Students are much more likely to ask 'why' when pressed to account for the
current state of affairs than they are to ask what is likely to have happened in the
future. I have found that in the traditional approach, students rarely ask "What
happened next?", whereas, in this approach they are more likely to ask "hmm, I
wonder what must have happened earlier to bring this about?" Students told me
that they were much more likely to read the earlier chapter in a textbook (since we
'began' with the last chapter) in this approach than they were to read the next
chapter in the traditional approach.
- This approach encourages students to understand that history has very deep roots
or long tentacles, exactly what we want them to grasp. In the traditional approach
students are not knowledgeable enough of the past to identify or appreciate
significant factors for the future. They have no context. In this approach they
know about catastrophic events in the present; This gives them essential context
for probing the past with heightened sensitivities for possible clues in the past that
would shed light on the present. I find they spot these clues more quickly than
they ever had done in the traditional approach.
I see no reason why this same format would not work for any other history course. It is
particularly suitable for broad survey courses.