Is your social studies curriculum a mile wide & an inch deep

The perennial problem that any world history schoolteacher faces is how to get through the curriculum in one year. Rome was not built in a day, nor the tablets of world history written in the course of one century, but teachers are expected to teach all of the world’s events in the space of a year (the typical American school curriculum covers world history in one year, two in the UK before college.) The result is the lack of depth of the study that can be carried out by the student – it is no wonder that the typical social studies curriculum is commonly described as “a mile wide and an inch deep”.


The other problem that presents itself, particularly if you happen to be a non-American using American homeschooling resources is that most American history curricula are either US-or Eurocentric in its focus. The heart of the problem is best elucidated upon by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer authors of the homeschooling guide The Well Trained Mind:

“[Y]ou probably started with American history started with American history (which is pretty near the end of the story as we know it) and then spent at least twice as much studying American history as you did the rest of the world. Yes American history is important for Americans, but this myopic division of the curriculum does the Founding Fathers a disservice. Children who plunge into the study of the American Revolution with no knowledge of the classical models used by Jefferson, Washington, and their colleagues can achieve only a partial understanding of American government and ideals. And American history ought to be kept in perspective: the history curriculum covers seventy centuries; America occupies only five of them.

A common assumption found in history curricula seems to be that children can’t comprehend (or be interested in) people and events distant from their own experience. So the first-grade history class is renamed Social Studies and begins with what the child knows: first, himself and his family, followed by his community, his state, his country, and only then the rest of the world.

This intensely self-focused pattern of study encourages the student of history to relate everything he studies to himself, to measure the cultures and customs of other peoples against his own experience. And that’s exactly what the classical education fights against—a self-absorbed, self-referential approach to knowledge. History learned this way makes our needs and wants the center of the human endeavor. This attitude is destructive at any time, but it is especially destructive in the present global civilization.

The goal of the classical curriculum is multicultural in the best sense of the word: the student by seeing the proper place of his community, his state, and his country by seeing the broad sweep of history from its beginning and then fitting his own time and place into that great landscape.”

With a view to resolving some of the above issues, today’s newsletter offers three things that might help: a scope and sequence of study (see Part Two); a compendium list of readings and materials; and finally, some (hopefully) fresh tips or suggested ways for increasing depth of learning during your child’s history hour.

The following guide was put together after a survey of world history standards in the UK (called the “A” levels), the International Baccalaureate, as well as the World History Advance Placement exams to be offered in the US for the first time from May 2002. It may be of help to parents or students who wish for study materials oriented towards essay style work.

The accompanying list of books and materials, was compiled from multiple sources (booklists of Classical schools, private schools’ AP history courses, Great Books courses, Waldorf, Worldviews of the Western World and Sonlight curricula, Greenleaf Press(GP), Beautiful Feet Books(BF), Veritas Press(VP), Rainbow Resource, Curriculum, Scholastics catalogs, including a considerable amount of research on my part on recent titles). The books or materials are listed under chronological periods of history and topically. The listing is annotated with particular attention to given to information on broad age group the material might be suitable for and the kind of learning style it is suited for, ie visual (beautifully illustrated), auditory (good narrative), hands-on (project ideas). Except where an out-of-print book is exceptional, only in-print books and their prices are listed. Nearly all books can be purchased through major online bookstores like or, although I have also listed source catalogs where I relied upon their reviews or judgment as to good literature. The list includes audio-books, videotape productions and craft and model assembly kits. Visit our listing of books at our BOOKROOM.


Laying the Foundations in the Early Years

This is how we carry on our the study of history in our own home, for the early years between ages 4-8, while we are still concentrating on reading, writing and math basic skills, we are laying the foundation for more detailed and indepth study later on in the following ways:

Develop the understanding of chronological time and the periods of history: We have made a gilted family tree with pictures of members of our extended family. Virginia Lee Burton’s charmingly illustrated picture book Life Story (also available in Japanese at our local library) and its detailed pictures and simple narrative will help the youngest of children understand the concept of time unfolding through the ages as a story – at one reading. Other books which serve as visual feasts for children and which help unravel the panorama of historical events, we have found, are the following DK books, A Street Through Time: A 12,000 Year Walk through History by Anne Millard and Steve Noon ( 0-…) as well as In the Beginning: The Nearly Complete History of Almost Everything by Richard Platt and illustrator Brian Delf (ISBN 0-7894-0206), How Children Lived. A First Book of History(1-56458876) and Life Through the Ages (Dorling Kindersley’s See & Explore Library series, available from the Scholastics catalog); Amazing Pop-Up 3-D Time Scape by Richard Platt and illustrator Stephen Biesty (  0-7894-4716-9  ), the first two titles are available in Japanese (we found copies at our local library) as well as English and the last is designed as a foldout poster to be hung on a wall. These are no childish books but the visual artwork is brilliant, detailed and well historically researched enough to please the adult.

n Provide a good background in the basics of geography, mapreading, town and country and community basic knowledge. This area of learning has been terrific and enjoyable for us, armed with resources such as our inflatable globe, the DK Ultimate Panoramic Atlas (gorgeous 3-D maps), Maps and Journeys, Our Globe, Our World (Around and About series by Kate Petty and Jukki Wood, 0-8120-1236-4), Where Do I Live? (0812092414), North, South, East, and West (0516460110), Usborne’s Then and Now and in the same series, Homes and Houses Then and Now. My son has also enjoyed immensely This is My House by Arthur Dorros, How A House is Built by Gail Gibbons, Citybook by Shelley Rotner and Ken Kreisler, Around Town by Chris K. Soentpiet (lovely watercolors and detailed scenes of a cosmopolitan citylife), Farming by Gail Gibbons, The Little Island by Leonard Weisgard, Geography from A to Z: A Picture Glossary (0064460991) good pictorial representations and easy-to-understand explanations of every major geological and geographical phenomenon that one needs to know. On habitats and biomes, we’ve enjoyed What is a Biome? (A Bobbie Kalman book in The Science of Living Things series), Deserts by Gail Gibbons.and the stunningly illustrated One Small Square series including titles like Tropical Rain Forest, Arctic Tundra, Savannah Grasslands. We also liked Geography For the Very Young – Beginning Reproducible Workbooks (vol 1 & 2) by Jo Ellen Moore and Joy Evans (from Veritas Press)

n Provide a good feel for the cultural lifestyles, landscapes and architecture of the different eras progressing through the ages. We have found useful these children’s books for their narrative on particular areas of history: A Child’s History Of the World by V.M. Hilyer (explains B.C./A.D., prehistory, bronze and iron ages and the concept of the millennia well to very young children but is sparse on visuals with a few simple line drawings); The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon (geared to upper elementary levels, dealing well with topics such as the invention of writing well and with important historical personalities but also has few pictures); Usborne Internet-linked Encyclopedia of World History (Has bright and beautiful illustrations, a chronological easy-to-read text in bite-size paragraphs though bound together in encyclopedic format, but does not read smoothly as a narrative reading); Prehistory to Egypt and other titles in the Journey Through History series is a more gentle introduction with childish watercolor illustrations. However, a new yet-to-be-released resource is promising to be everything the homeschooler wants in terms of a good narrative, may well be The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child Volume 1 (Ancient Times from the Earliest Nomads to the Last Roman Emperor ) by Susan Wise Bauer its first shipment yet to make it out soon in mid-December 2001. Since the author has pointed all the shortcomings of current history texts and resources, it is expected that their book will be THE book that will redress all of them. What homeschoolers will undoubtfully find useful is the Activity Book One that will accompanying the main narrative text.



Commencing History Studies Proper

Fortunately, as home-educating parents, we will have better options than to replicate the typical world history curriculum in public schools. We have the option to instruct or facilitate learning of the subject over many years; or as classical educators suggest, to complete the study in cycles, two or three times over the K-12 grade years. The Well Trained Mind suggests studying the Ancients during grades 1,5 and 9; Medieval-Renaissance periods during 2, 6 and 10 and Reformation-Early Modern periods during grades 3, 7 and 11 and Modern History during grades 4, 8 and 12.

There are many diverse views about how social studies should be best taught. Some recommend choosing the best resources: the best textbooks, the best workbooks. Some focus on learning styles and put their bets on hands-on units for which there is no lack of excellent resources. There are video curricula and there are great audio tapes like Diana Waring’s series. But homeschool products on the market cater basically to your homeschooling style and your child’s homeschooling style.

Well and good that there are materials catering to all learning styles, still I think the majority of curricula and materials miss the most important point. The key to social studies is the process of thinking in history studies. As Paul Richard in “Content is Thinking; Thinking is Content” (Source) writes “There is no way to learn historical content without learning how to figure out correct or reasonable answers to historical questions and problems…The majority of teachers and students currently approach content, not as a mode of thinking, not as a system for thought, nor even as a system of thought, but rather as a sequence of stuff to be routinely “covered” and committed to memory. When content is approached in this lower order way, there is no basis for intellectual growth, there are no deep structures of knowledge formed, no basis for long term grasp and control.”


The National Center for History in the Schools website has a fine description of the key skills and what constitutes historical understanding which I have reproduced in part below:

“[T]rue historical understanding requires students to engage in historical thinking: to raise questions and to marshal solid evidence in support of their answers; to go beyond the facts presented in their textbooks and examine the historical record for themselves; to consult documents, journals, diaries, artifacts, historic sites, works of art, quantitative data, and other evidence from the past, and to do so imaginatively–taking into account the historical context in which these records were created and comparing the multiple points of view of those on the scene at the time.

Real historical understanding requires that students have opportunity to create historical narratives and arguments of their own. Such narratives and arguments may take many forms–essays, debates, and editorials, for instance. They can be initiated in a variety of ways. None, however, more powerfully initiates historical thinking than those issues, past and present, that challenge students to enter knowledgeably into the historical record and to bring sound historical perspectives to bear in the analysis of a problem.

Historical understanding also requires that students thoughtfully read the historical narratives created by others. Well-written historical narratives are interpretative, revealing and explaining connections, change, and consequences. They are also analytical, combining lively storytelling and biography with conceptual analysis drawn from all relevant disciplines. Such narratives promote essential skills in historical thinking.

Reading such narratives requires that students analyze the assumptions–stated and unstated–from which the narrative was constructed and assess the strength of the evidence presented. It requires that students consider the significance of what the author included as well as chose to omit–the absence, for example, of the voices and experiences of other men and women who were also an important part of the history of their time. Also, it requires that students examine the interpretative nature of history, comparing, for example, alternative historical narratives written by historians who have given different weight to the political, economic, social, and/or technological causes of events and who have developed competing interpretations of the significance of those events.

Students engaged in activities of the kinds just considered will draw upon skills in the following five interconnected dimensions of historical thinking:

1. Chronological Thinking
2. Historical Comprehension
3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation
4. Historical Research Capabilities
5. Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-making”

Source: National Standards for History / History Thinking Standards

Not surprisingly, classical trivium schools since they typically have history at the center of their curriculum, are at their best when telling us how to do history studies. In Well Trained Mind, the authors suggest, in the early years(called the grammar stage), that we use a history notebook along with “a fair amount ofmemorization” of facts, dates, personalities, and wars – these are necessary, as “pegs on which to hang incoming information” and also carry on “an exploration of the stories of history: great men and women of all kinds; battles and wars; important inventions; world inventions; details of daily life and culture; and great books”. During the logic stage, roughly corresponding to the fifth though eighth grades, we are to concentrate on cause-and-effect and chronological relationships and in the rhetoric stage (grades 9-12), we should be studying original sources and writing thoughtful essays on them.


The classical schools do a brilliant job of showing homeschoolers how to facilitate history learning so I heartily recommend The Well Trained Mind or following some of the internet links that I have included right at the end of this newsletter. However, I do have one additional tip to add. History studies especially in the upper grades or rhetoric years can be heavy-going especially if the student is expected to read a huge selection of sourcebooks and all that essay-writing and heavy reading can be very lonely work. Since the student is expected to get into the habit of thinking in the form of arguments and debates, he or she will need a sounding board for ideas. Research has indicated that the small group tutorial style of instruction used by the British colleges of Oxford and Cambridge Universities are the most effective means of instructing the humanities. The mainstay of these traditional bastions of humanities learning is their pedagogical technique which involves Socratic Teaching, said to be “the oldest, and still the most powerful tactic for fostering critical thinking”. Homeschool parents can add a powerful dimension to home education by posing facilitating questions in the Socratic style and perhaps, and perhaps even having a homeschool coop with more members to facilitate such a creative environment. For more details on how to pursue this method in your homeschool, you can read more about “Socratic Teaching” here


If you are not about to rely on any history curriculum from any particular publisher, then you will probably need at least one general central reference or resource that serves as your homebase for covering all the major events and personalities from the prehistoric/ancient times to the present day, and then to expand upon topics from each period segment under study. The most popular options for such reference sourcebooks include:

Grades 3-7

The Kingfisher Illustrated History of the World by Charlotte Evans and Jack Zevins Heavily illustrations, photographs and maps, readable text and gold timelines running down the sides of the pages throughout make this a favorite among homeschoolers.

n Short Lessons in World History Provides concise overview summaries of world history followed by fill-in-the-blanks, multiple choice, puzzle or map question exercises, 12 mini-biographies. Clipart type visuals, clear maps. from Rainbow

n See also narrative history titles listed earlier

For advanced students in Grades 7-12

A Short History of Western Civilization The Well Trained Mind recommends this as a history text to supplement a high school Great Books course of study.

Short Lessons in World History by E. Richard Churchill and Linda R. Churchill. Appealing and readable, the main sections of the first half of the book cover early civilizations, the Middle Ages, the growth of European power, and the Industrial Revolution; the second half of the book focuses in unusual depth on the 19th and 20th centuries. Each unit features an illustrated overview of the period with boldface “Think About It” questions, a one-page biography of a notable figure, at least one map, a “puzzle quiz,” and a review quiz. Reading level: grade 5. Interest level: grades 7-12. Preview sample pages at here

WORLD HISTORY: HarperCollins College Outlines Volumes one and two offer an affordable clear, succinct overview of world history from a cultural perspective. Volume two’s coverage is good; of changes in Western Europe and the evolution of the modern world, including the pageant of exploration, conquests, political movements, and wars, as well as the economic and social results of increasing global interdependence. Each chapter includes a timeline.

The Cambridge Introduction to World History Series by Trevor Cairns (Cambridge University Press) This is actually popularly used world history program comprising four Course Books that provide a chronological overview of history until mid-17th century along with 16 brief supplemental Topic Books Available from For further exploration of specific topics, look at the many resources in our BOOKROOM, or purchase any of the World History units from SSCNET

Listed here are some other indispensable aids and resources that are deserving of special mention:

n Veritas Press World History series of Flash Cards Kits (developed in conjunction with several Christian Classical Schools using the Greenleaf History curriculum). Five sets of cards cover history from the Old Testament to Modern Times serve as visual cue cards for teaching or discussion-prompter on significant events in world history and usually feature an art masterpiece of the period. Each $19.95 kit include 16 card sets, one music tape, teacher’s manual From Veritas Press

n Milliken Transparency / Reproducibles (6 books in all $11.95 each) Useful ready-to-use transparencies with sharp colorful illustrations and diagrams, worksheets, activities, information. From

n The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History (and other titles) by Colin McEvedy Map-based narrative history written by a historian with a wonderful turn of phrase and a quirky sense of humor or the Cultural Atlas series which is chock-full of gorgeous photographs of historical places or Usborne Illustrated Atlas of World History.

n Timeline aids are especially important learning retention tools, especially if the child makes them himself/herself. Timeline Sets and Figures 400 piece assorted set of figures to be colored and cut out for $28.00 from OR Historical Timeline Figures 312 figures, over 20 reproducible figures. Printed on cardstock See samples online at Rainbow Resource Center sells two good Timeline wallchart/books that the child can fill in (Choose from “We Signed the Declaration when Beethoven was Five? for $31.95 Or The Book of Centuries for $25.50. ) Commercial aids include A Graphic History of Mankind wall chart for $8.00 from Micahel Olaf’s Essential Montessori catalog or OR The Timetables of History by Bernard Grun which has over 700 pages of timeline listing over 30,000 events in seven categories in the book. Homemade timeline figures can be purchased:

n Other visual aids include Historical Images on CD-Rom: World History beautiful photography and pictures for classroom presentations $95 from OR Eyewitness History of the World This CD Rom offers illustrations, text, animation, video of events in 10 different time periods Watch the action of the fall of the Berlin Wall or a medieval archer in action. $39.95 From

n Uncle Josh’s Outline Map Book has 100 reproducible outline maps including the 50 states, all seven continents, ancient historical regions, important war arenas, and more in 8 ½ ” x 11″ size.

n Coloring books can be great visual aids. Choose from the Dover Historical and Bellerophon Coloring Books or Color & Learn History Books. Don’t look down on these coloring books — these are not kiddish at all but detailed reproductions of period lifestyles and artworks or artifacts. All are available from major bookstores or

n A Young Person’s Guide to Philosophy by Jeremy Waite, Peter Lawman (ill.) A heavily illustrated chronological journey through the history of Western philosophy and the lives and times of some of the greatest thinkers. Clear and accessible for grades 7-12 ($16.95), this book will add depth by helping the student understanding the “Great Ideas” of the times, turning your history study into a “humanities” course.

n Usborne World Religions (suitable for elementary students)

n Many video resources are useful tools especially the cinematic medium delivers the drama and mood of events that will not come through on paper., moviesunlimited and are good sources for video/movie historical resources

n The Dorling Kindersley Chronicle of the World: The Ultimate Record of World History. A hefty resource at over 1,000 pages, the first seven pages are an illustrated timeline of events that influenced politics and society and technology and culture. The rest of the book follows this timeline. On the left hand side of each two page spread there is a box containing short “chronology” entries that deal with deaths, productions of works of art, inventions, etc. The remainder of each two-page spread includes four or more articles covers period events in newspaper style

n has over 25,000 biographies that you can resort to without hunting down books.

Internet Links to Essays or Tips on Homeschooling History:

n Why Teach History by Jim Muncy Source

n How Do I Make a Timeline? Geomatters timeline link and Family Heritage and Timelines

n For Classical Homeschooling Newsletter tips by Lene M.Jaqua on “Teaching History Chronologically” see this page and “Creating Your Own History Unit Studies click here

n Tips on “Art, Writing, Science and Timelines” by Shirley Minster can be read at; “Timeline Books. History At A Glance” by Beth Parker shows you how to make a timeline and how to make history learning fun for your kids at this link and “Timelines: How, What, WhyOnline Source

n The Well Trained Mind’s website offers its approach in “A Classical Approach to and in “History Resources: Starting

n Christine Miller has compiled a series of articles on “Using Literature to Teach History” at and on “Teaching History Chronologically” at this link

n Find out more about “Helping Your Child Learn History”? at

n Rob and Cyndy Shearer tell us how to make history exciting in “Put the Story Back into Historythis page and “How to Handle Mythology” by Rob and Cyndy Shearer

n “Preparing Your Child for a Great Books Education by Fritz Hinrichs at

n “What constitutes a world-view?” and “What are the different aspects of a world-view?” URL:





One last word on cartoon-style history books– I have omitted these from the lists although I am not averse to using books like Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gomick or the popular Greek News, Roman News (and other similar titles by Anton Powell and Philip Steele). These books feature history in news format and cartoons, and are excellent for getting history-phobic kids who think of history as stuffy or “uncool” to actually read the books; however where possible, children should be weaned off cartoons and instead “hooked” on “real living books” that breathe the atmosphere of the era and fill minds with accurate images of peoples and artifacts from those eras. (No history books on Japan have been listed because this is a huge area in progress.)

3 thoughts on “Is your social studies curriculum a mile wide & an inch deep”

  1. Thank you so Very much for this post! You have made the subject of teaching
    history easy to comprehend. I have read other articles and books but have learned more from your concise comparison of teaching strategies.

    Again..Thank you!

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