Teaching History in Reverse

This web log is dedicated to exploration of the idea and practice of learning and teaching history from present to past, i.e., in reverse chronological order from what is traditional. It is believed that this approach may be advantageous to learning history, to an appreciation of history, and to the empowerment of the learner.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

A Proposed Method

Teaching History from Present-To-Past (PREPARE)
A Proposed Methodology

Rationale: According to the Idaho Standards, the importance of knowledge about history rests with the learner’s ability to use it to make better decisions that influence public life today and tomorrow. History is normally taught as a narrative that begins in the past and proceeds toward the present. A critical weakness of this approach is that it will be difficult for most learners to see the relevance of historical dynamics to their own lives. History becomes entertainment, at best. History lessons are remembered as a jumble of events, dates, and personalities. Thus, even while the Standards are fulfilled, the core purpose of studying history remains unfulfilled.

The proposed methodology involves a spiral curriculum in which history is learned from present to past through inquiry, with recursive links created forward to the present at every phase. It is maintained that this approach will make history more relevant to learners and increase their ability to make use of history. It is further maintained that this greater sense of relevance, combined with more active learner inquiry, will result in an improvement of learners’ long-term knowledge of salient events, developments, and personalities when compared with conventional history pedagogy.

Description of the Methodology

Present-to-Past (PREPARE) involves a spiral approach with six steps in each phase. Teacher preparation for this methodology involves reviewing the salient concepts and facts for each standard and for each chapter of the textbook, and mapping these in an “effect-and-cause” order.

Steps in the Methodology:

1. Begin with a presentation and discussion of Current Situations. Current Situations is a deeper and broader assessment of the present than what is typically afforded by “Current Events.” Current Situations should focus on things that will be salient to the lives of learners – things that they care about and which are consequential to significant numbers of people on a national and international scale.

2. Students collaborate to develop Inquiry Questions. These are questions that will guide an inquiry into the causes of current situations. The teacher will assist the students in developing questions that are complete, relevant, penetrating, and of a suitable scope. The class, aided by the teacher, will select one or more of the proposed inquiry questions to pursue.

3. Students engage in Exploration of historical developments, events, and personalities in order to develop hypotheses that can answer the inquiry questions. In Exploration, students begin to map relationships between present and past.

4. Explorations should include use of the textbook and other available information sources, but should also help learners become centered in and bring to life the era and chapter being explored. This is called Visiting. Films, photographs, speeches, music, art, old newspaper articles, biographies, and performances could be used and exhibited by groups of students. The class, assisted by the teacher, will use these to develop the most useful theory to define that prior era/chapter and to explain the present day situation.

5. Students Review Forward the causes and effects from the era studied directly (not through subsequent eras) to the present day (return to Step 1).

6. Students Retrace Inquiry Questions back to the last era visited (moving through every era previously studied), review their knowledge of that era, and begin working backwards from that era with Step 2.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

some "history in reverse" references

Here are some references to the subject of teaching history "in reverse":


The above is an article titled "A Teaching Strategy: Teaching U.S. History Backwards," by Annette Atkins. It is from the March 2000 issue of the journal Perspectives.

I understand that the following book was written from the present to the distant past:

Longworth, Philip (1997) The Making of Eastern Europe (2nd Edition). NY: pub n/a.

Other articles that may be of interest:

Davis, G.H. & Laushey, D.M. Tampering with the Temporal Order. History Teacher 5(3), pp.40-44. March, 1972.

Greenwood, B. Adventures in Learning - History in Reverse. Gifted Education International, 12(1), p. 39. 1997.

Pfannkuche, C.L. A Modest Proposal for History Teachers. Social Studies 62(6), pp. 243-46. November, 1971.

Baker's Approach


My name is Michael Baker (I use the login name "frederick" after Frederick Douglass, a person whose private life is quite compelling).  I currently teach United States History at a suburban high school in Lincoln, Nebraska and have been teaching in chronological reverse for about four years.  Allow me to share some things with you.

In the past several years I have been influenced by individuals such as Paulo Freire, Howard Zinn, bell hooks, James Loewen,  James Beane, William Ayers and others who advocate for social justice.  I became committed to trying to create democratic classrooms and began to read volumes.  The more I read, the more I became convinced that we are in a profession that promotes the ideals and the dreams of the privileged and is highly supported by a corporate culture that wishes to merely produce compliant workers.  Having students think critically is inviting trouble.

One of the first steps I took was to remove the district text from the hands of my students as their primary resource.  Virtually all United State's history textbooks are the same.  They start from the the same place and "cover" the same topics.  They weigh about the same and cost about the same.  But perhaps most importantly, they tend to perpetuate national myths that are so necessary for the maintenance and hegemony of a national culture dominated by a very small percentage of political and economic elites.  The focus is on glorifying the distant past while more recent events get little more than cursory attention.  Students who study U.S. history in high school are generally not all that interested in vernerating the heroic exploits and wars initiated by dead white men.  Yet that is what they are forced to endure because most teachers are very traditional in their pedagogical approach as school districts are under pressure from states to have their students perform well on standardized tests.  One reason for the focus on the distant past may be that we have to wait for the dust to settle on recent history so we can get an "official" authoritative version of the facts that will be acceptable to book publishers and local school boards.   Let me give you an example.

My district has just adopted a new textbook, "America, Pathways to the Present."  The title is intriguing because we are on some journey from the distant past to now, but as usual the "now" gets little attention.  In the section about the invasion of Panama in 1989, there is only one paragraph.  Here is an excerpt:  "After Noreiga declared war on the United States, Bush launched a lightning attack against Panama in December 1989 and quickly won control of the country.  Noriega surrendered to American forces on January 3, 1990, and two years later a federal jury in Florida convicted him of drug smuggling.  The invasion demonstrated Bush's willingness to act boldly to stop the flow of drugs into the United States."  Now, most high school teachers probably don't even get this far, but if they do, and if all they use is the textbook, what impression are students left with about this incident?  There is nothing about the thousands of Panamanian civilians who were killed or wounded.  There is nothing about Bush's previous role as head of the C.I.A who protected Noriega and paid him tens of thousands of dollars.  Nothing about how Noriega was replaced by a government whose members of the new regime were suspected drug traffickers and money launderers.  No, students are left with the impression that the president acted "boldly" to stop drugs from coming into the country.  Great.  Just what school boards want.  Maybe it is in our national interest not to tell students the truth so they will continue to believe that America can do no wrong.  Perhaps there is nothing wrong with that except the texts and/or the teachers also need to provide students with alternative and, in some cases, disparate views.  Of course this is not going to happen because textbook publishers realize that to print perspectives that challenge official truth would mean less profit.  Essentially what they are doing is creating, what Walter Lippman calls, "the manufacture of consent."  And if teachers only use the textbook and conduct their classes without critical dialogue then we are filling students with lies of omission.  It is at this juncture where critical thinking and reverse teaching come together.

In order to teach using this pedagogical approach, there is a need for the teacher to engage in quite a bit of research.  To study the present using multiple perspectives is not easy, but it certainly is rewarding.  I did some research and did not find many references to teaching backwards.  One of the more interesting pieces I came across was from a parent's magazine in 1891/92:

"...children should begin with their own times and read history backwards.  We want to give them reality to history by showing that it is not something remote, to be found in books only; we want to show that the life of each child forms part of history; then we may lead him on to see that the whole world is different for each man that has lived...."

But, for me, the most compelling piece of research I came across mirrors what I do.  The Franklin Community School Corporation in Indiana was the focus of a project entitled, "Backward History:  A New Application."  The article about their project appeared in the Indiana Social Studies Quarterly in the autumn of 1983.  They started from the present, moved back to a point in time, constantly making connections to the previous area of study.  Part of their rationale was adopted from Jack R. Frymier's 1955 article in The Social Studies, "A New Approach to Teaching History?"  Essentially Frymier observed that learning is greater when proceeding from the known into the unknown.  And, what is more "knowable" than the present and recent past?

The point of all of this is that once students begin to see themselves as an observer, thinker, and participant in what is going on around them, they may begin to understand themselves better and, as a result, understand the past.  In an editorial by Andrew Schmookler (Baltimore Sun, June 1, 2003) we find the following words, "What we learn about ourselves depends on the stories we hold before our eyes."

What better place to start than to read not just the "official" stories published by textbook corporations about their interpretations of history but also the alternative stories that offer students additional insight about their reality.  I believe a good part of my presence in the classroom is to assist students to develop the necessary critical thinking skills in order to bring their worldview, and ultimately my own, into even greater focus.  This requires commitment to critical pedagogy if a goal is to get students to develop an ability to analyze recent historical events and then make the political, social, and economic connections as you move backward and forward through time.

michael baker

Monday, July 26, 2004

Welcome to Teaching History in Reverse

Greetings. This group blog has been set up to foster dialogue and sharing of ideas regarding the concept and practice of teaching history in reverse chronological order.

The reasoning behind teaching history "backwards" is that it transforms the study of history from a distant narrative - whose relevance to the learner may not be apparent - into a compelling inquiry into why things are the way they are, and why they became the way they did.

Some teachers have already had success with this method. Others are intrigued by the idea. Perhaps our inquiry will give rise to new ideas for curricula and curricular materials like textbooks that are tailored for the "history backwards" approach.

If you wish to join this Blog as a contributing member and have not yet been invited, feel free to e-mail me, Matthew Shapiro, at mshapiro@follettfoundation.org.