History Teaching Style: Thematic or Chronological

A history teacher helping her students find locations on a map

One of the most common challenges for history teachers can be trying to fit such a vast ocean of knowledge into just one school year. On top of that, history teachers must also meet education standards and prepare students for standardized tests, while still making the lesson plan come to life in a way that is meaningful and engaging for students. In recent years, there’s been more of a shift toward the thematic approach rather than the chronological approach when it comes to teaching history. When you earn your degree and become a teacher, you’ll have to use a little trial and error to figure out which approach works best for your teaching style.

Table of Contents:

Understanding the Chronological Approach

The chronological approach is exactly what its name implies: the study of history from one point in time to another point in time. This means that one history class might cover 200 years of American or world history, while another class might cover thousands of years from the Stone Age to the medieval period.

Understanding the Thematic Approach

The thematic approach eschews a linear progression through history. Instead, it favors a holistic look at the movements, events, people and ideas that have shaped the world throughout time. A thematic curriculum is divided into units. Each unit has a theme, and the content can be taken from any period in history that the class covers.

Taking a Look at Sample Lesson Plans

In comparing the thematic and chronological approaches, it’s helpful to have a general idea of the potential differences in lesson plans. For a typical eighth grade American history class, a chronological curriculum might look something like this:

  • Unit 1: Exploration and Colonization
  • Unit 2: American Revolution
  • Unit 3: Establishment of Government
  • Unit 4: Westward Expansion
  • Unit 5: Reform Movements
  • Unit 6: The Civil War
  • Unit 7: Post-War Reconstruction

Thematic curricula give history teachers a great deal more flexibility in lesson planning. For an eighth grade class on American history, a teacher using the thematic approach might make lesson plans for the following units, with each including content from a range of time periods.

  • Unit 1: American Character and Values
  • Unit 2: The Immigrant Experience
  • Unit 3: War and Peace
  • Unit 4: Social Justice and Reform
  • Unit 5: Economics

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Each Approach

Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks. The chronological approach may be preferable to some history teachers simply because students expect the lesson plans to proceed in a predictable fashion. It also allows teachers to set a foundation in one unit that the following unit builds upon. For example, students proceed from the Civil War to Reconstruction. The downsides of the chronological approach include the challenge of getting students engaged, getting them to draw connections and encouraging them to identify trends throughout history. The thematic approach is often favored by new teachers because it can appear to get students more interested in the material, and helps them understand historic connections within the appropriate context. One possible disadvantage is that some students may lose interest after spending a few weeks studying one theme.

Grand Canyon University is pleased to use the thematic approach in our contemporary history programs. Our Bachelor of Arts in History for Secondary Education degree program aligns with state and national standards. Click on the Request More Information button today!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.