Three guiding questions for world history state standards

Lauren Harris
March 29, 2023

Lauren Harris, associate professor of history education at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, has been conducting research for more than a decade on the topic of how educators teach history in schools. Her most recent research paper provides educators with guiding questions that can help inform the development of effective world history state standards.

Seeing Standards as Educative: Guidance for the Analysis and Design of State World History Standards,” published in World History Connected, was written by lead author Harris and Brian Girard,  professor of secondary education in the School of Education at the College of New Jersey. 

The authors acknowledge a need for more effective standards to help guide world history teachers when considering difficult history issues that may be politically or socially sensitive. The paper brings attention to how world history standards can help educators frame global perspectives by identifying and exploring historical themes that emerge across different time frames, geographies and societies. The authors identify three key questions, summarized below, to help guide the analysis and design of world history standards.

Do the standards help frame global perspectives and interconnections?

In the paper, the authors share examples of what it means to emphasize a global perspective through comparing and contrasting historical events or developments. For example, a standard to prepare students to analyze the rise of urbanization or nationalism helps frame global perspectives when students are expected to contrast and compare how different regions experienced these developments.

“Standards that encourage educators to connect themes across time periods and regions create a much more nuanced and contextual opportunity for students to learn,” says Harris. “In this way, students can better understand how certain historical developments such as industrialization emerged in different regions, including Great Britain and Japan, and compare  the benefits and challenges of industrialization in these  nations and other connected societies around the world.” 

In contrast, standards that encourage students to examine industrialization country by country, rather than compare or contrast regions, may reinforce a more sequential approach to teaching history rather than a focus on interconnections, according to Harris.

Do the standards help provide clarity and flexibility?

Educators are seeking a balance of clarity around what students need to learn with the flexibility to choose how these elements are taught.

Outlining overarching themes and core concepts in state standards can help teachers align with clear learning goals. An example used in the paper is the overarching theme of “The Emergence of the First Global Age: Global Interactions and Colonialism.” One core concept from this overarching theme could be to have students explore how methods and motivations of nations and individuals resulted in different patterns of trade and conflict.

Educators can also benefit when clarity is combined with flexibility in state standards. Harris notes that some state standards provide rationales for choice, including the ability to use local examples, or use current events to illuminate historical concepts and themes. 

Do the standards provide support and resources to teachers?

States can improve standards when they include supports for teachers in the standards themselves. For example, supports can include footnotes citing research and resources or supporting questions for each topic. The authors also found that standards can include “clarification statements,” such as listing possible cases that students could study and indicating where standards and historical topics in one course or grade level link to another. 

“World history teachers realize that what and how they teach can have a profound effect on how students view the world and navigate complex topics,” said Harris, who is a co-editor of Teaching Difficult Histories in Difficult Times: Stories of Practice. “State standards, when written well, can provide educators with the right amount of guidance to help them do so effectively.”