Almost since I first head about the “new, radical” notion of teaching history backward, I have been intrigued. I first heard about it while overhearing a conversation–while presenting a paper at Rice University in March 2014–about how Dr. W. Caleb McDaniel was teaching his survey course backward, starting with the present and working backward.
It took some time for the idea to fully soak in. While I have wanted to try it for sometime, I have hesitated for a number of reasons, but I am finally going to try it this semester in my Texas History class!
While the idea seems new and radical, it apparently dates back to at least the 1870s, 1890s, 1900s, and the 1970s! About 95%+ of those I have discussed this with in the past (including students), find it fascinating and different. The idea is, simply and partly, that learning occurs naturally and most productively when people start with the most familiar and work slowly toward the unfamilar.
Additionally, the hope is that by working backward, the focus shifts much more directly to “how” and “why” instead of “and then this happened.” When discussing each period, you ask “what do we need to understand about the previous era to understand this era.”
Additionally, as I have written about before, history really is the study of the present (not the past). President Barack Obama influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., much more than the other way around.
And, as my syllabi say:
History is a tale told about the past in the present for present purposes.
The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.
This approach will help decenter typical trajectories and force all of us to think in different, new ways.
So, I am excited to see what happens. I am constantly trying new things in the classroom, and this is one of the latest ones! I’ll be blogging with updates regularly.
For more information on recent approaches, see Dr. Rob MacDougall‘s “The Backward Survey,” Dr. Tim Lacy‘s “Off-Topic Methodology Bleg: Teaching History Backwards,” The History Education Network’s “Teaching History Backwards,” Dr. Kenneth W. Hermann’s “The Pedagogical Strengths of Teaching History Backwards,” and Dr. Annette Atkins‘s “A Teaching Strategy: Teaching U.S. History Backwards.”
Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda