Dechronologizing History: Ideas for a Media Future

I worked on the US History list with Pearson Education for 2 years, and in that time interacted with several teams of brilliant historians as they crafted US Survey textbooks.

For each of those projects, timelines and chronologies were built-in features the books, and our online offerings as well. In fact, timelines and chronologies were “bedrock” features of the book. Unquestionably universally useful. They orient the user! Chronologies give them a sense of what to study for!

But I didn’t stop to think about how I learn history.

And I don’t learn that way.

Curriculum theory can be pretty dry. But the following passage in a rather manifesto-like treatise on curriculum made me sit up in a very electric way. Kincheloe, Slattery and Steinberg’s call for an “autobiographical” mode of learning, a learning path of personal discovery and project-based outcomes, took history curriculum to task:

“Students often complain about the boredom they feel in social studies classes, particularly history. In fact, if one discipline in the curriculum exemplifies the failure of the modern behaviorist and analytic approach to education, it is history. Teachers often reduce history to a series of events on a linear timeline to be memorized and evaluated in the context of artificially contrived epochs of sociopolitical or cultural development. The linear model divides time into the past, present and future, and, as a result, removes any potential autobiographical connection to the historical events discussed in textbooks or classroom lectures.”

They go on to say that timelines and chronologies actually decontextualize the events by giving all events the same weight. This method renders history a list of easily forgotten facts, the events lack staying power.

Contrast this against the way adults consume history: biographies and cultural histories.

Both biographies and cultural histories have staying power in our minds because of strong narratives, and a focused aperture on a point of view, a topic or a person. For cultural history, I’m thinking of Kurlansky empire (Salt, Cod, etc) and Kathleen Barry’s fascinating history of flight attendants.

This deep immersion into specific events is incredibly memorable.

I can’t change the curriculum which has students march through one damn event after another. And when it comes to Western and World History, the binding problem of coordinating countries and continents and events worsens.

But we can create digital experiences that foster this immersion. That go deep.
A few quick and dirty ideas:

  • “Conversations” with historic characters–curating public domain and open content in a staged interaction with the historic figure.
  • Borderlands and the Googlemaps API–plonking students down in 1 location (Congo, for instance) and layering the various geopolitical borders of that location over time.
  • Decomposition of material artifacts to show how they’re made. This animation from the Poiret exhibit from the Met that deconstructs a garment has stuck with me for 4 years, and is a fantastic example of informal learning with an impact.


Paul Poiret: King of Fashion @ the MET from SOFTlab on Vimeo.

  • “Choose your own historical adventure” media–starting with and event or group of events and asking students which way they’d like to experience it–from 3 different viewpoints.

I’m not interested in history because I think we’re “doomed to repeat it.” I’m interested in history because people are fascinating, and we’ve been facing core choices again and again with different outcomes–and that’s fascinating.


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