Teaching History Backwards

Larry Grant's picture

Once again I'm staring down the barrel of a World History II course this fall. Swallowing the entire elephantine half millennia of history (to mix my metaphors) is always a challenge.

I'm looking for a new way of approaching it, and the thought occurred to me that I might try to teach it backwards. Perhaps someone else has tried this?

I offer this example to show what I mean: In the past seven decades China again has become a major player on the international scene by challenging US leadership, moving closer to Russia, worrying its neighbors with aggressive local policies, and even establishing a new Silk Road.

Given that state of affairs, I propose to look at Asia in world history by first surveying China's current status and then stepping backward in time to, say, the mid-20th century and the rise of the Communists, then back again to the decline of Imperial China during the 19th century, and finish, for example, by looking back to the powerful China of Marco Polo.

I would cover that in a week or two of lecture time and give the students a nice hook up front to current events that (I hope) would grab their attention.

My question to my collegues is to ask for suggestions of other topics that lend themselves to this sort of treatment? NATO? Human trafficking? Precision in warfare? Rule of law? Artificial intelligence?

I welcome any and all suggestions.


BTW, I am aware that this approach reinforces the appearance of historical inevitability, but I plan to address that and a few other shortcomings of the approach early on.


Categories: Discussion

For what it is worth, I have hemmed and hawed about doing the exact same thing for my entire career. I remember discussing the idea with one of my professors when I was working on my masters back in 1995. He encouraged me to set my very first course up that way, concerned that this is the kind of thing that is easy to put off until "one day." I did not head his advice and here we are 25 years later and every term I think "I should do it."

I organize my course around Kevin Reilly's Secondary/Primary source reader "Worlds of History" and have recently wondered what would happen if I simply did what I am currently doing, but started with the last chapter. I wonder if the by simply altering the chronology if students would develop different sets of connection etc. Larry, you might be the inspiration I need to get this into motion although I do not teach the course again until the spring.

This idea was extensively discussed on a number of H-Net's networks over the years.  Here's a quick search on the discussion logs with the simple keyword "backwards," with generates many hits from H-Teach, H-World, and others.  I bet you'll find lots of great ideas in this trove of replies.

I haven't checked closely, but the "Mining the Logs" project also incorporates threads from H-World, and there might be a more organized collection of responses there.



I haven't checked on Ancestry, but I convinced procrastination dominates my genetic makeup.

I'm continue to fiddle with an outline, but my first thought ran along the following lines for a World II course. After dividing the world into manageable regions, the class would open with a regional overview highlighting a few of the most interesting current problems/topics/events. Students would then be grouped and given a rapid response assignment that would require them to come up with an basic narrative that explains the evolution of one or another current issue. They would have to respond to a critique and questions in class.

A survey of Africa, for example, might result in assignments that look at Zimbabwe, and they would then have to address issues like governance, race, colonialism, war, etc. Structuring the assignments properly could lead, in this example I think, to some comprehension of the broad sub-Saharan experience from the late nineteenth century to present day. That would be followed by further steps back in time.

This might take a couple of weeks per region, but I'm probably too optimistic on timing. Still, over 15 weeks or so, I think I can divide the world into maybe five large regions and spend approximately three weeks on each.

The benefits as I see them are the immediate hook at the beginning. I can remind them of events from recent history with which they may have some familiarity at least in a general sense. They can take that knowledge and develop some understanding of how the current conditions came about. Stepping back another time period or so helps increase the depth of their understanding at bit. This is like the classic closed end TV mystery: You know who the killer is the whole time and get to see how it was done over the course of the broadcast.

Obviously things are given up to do this. This is in no way comprehensive, but I don't believe that anyone can present several thousand years of history in a way that will stick with the majority of students. A few will remember something of the chronology or bits from here and there, but the remoter aspects are generally lost.

Not, not least because of a late change from World II to World I, I have to figure out how to start this process from around 1500 or so. Any thoughts will be welcomed.

My 2 cents worth: I used this approach the last two times I taught World Civ II (1500-present). In each case I taught a small class of about 25 students and utilized a modified flipped classroom approach as well as classroom discussion of primary sources (class discussions varied from about 15 minutes in length to the entire class period of 75 minutes depending on the topic).

MY response to this approach was "meh" and I am reverting to the regular 1500 to the present approach this fall.

FWIW, here's my reasoning for switching back. I don't recall where I came across the idea but I did find it intriguing when I did discover it. When I went looking for sample syllabi on line, I couldn't find any for World History (not to say they don't exist, just that my search skills couldn't find them). I did find a number for the second half of the US survey and, intriguingly, one for the first half of World History. Those who had used this approach in US History noted that what made it effective was they could start with current events that students knew about and then work back.

The key problem I encountered is that very few of my students were really aware of much that was going on in the world at the moment. So, rather than starting with the familiar and working back to the unfamiliar, I was starting with the unfamiliar and working back to the completely opaque. Now TBH, in and of itself, that's not that much different to a regular world civ course. BUT, I did find a few students who really had trouble dealing with the reverse chronology. Coupled with the fact that it didn't seem to make anything more comprehensible to the majority of students, it seemed, for me, the whole thing was a wash.

Last time I taught the course, I did find that using the modified flipped classroom and incorporating more reading and discussion were much more important in making the course accessible and useful to the students.

Now, having said all that, my experiences may be connected to my own faults and failings as a teacher and YMMV, but I thought it might be helpful to weigh in. I'm not saying it can't work and be an improvement over the normal teaching process, just that it didn't work for me. Or, at least, it didn't work any better than the normal chronological approach.

John Grigg
University of Nebraska - Omaha

Thanks for the great posts. I have much to mull over.