George Lucas Educational Foundation
Curriculum Planning

Using One Region to Teach World History

Focusing on depth instead of breadth can help students understand the intricacies of regional civilizations in world history.

September 9, 2020
High school students point to a large map
Cultura Creative / Alamy Stock Photo

Scholars estimate that written history began in the Middle East roughly 5,000 years ago. Today, the United Nations recognizes nearly 200 nations with a multitude of ethnicities, cultures, and languages within their changing borders.

Short of throwing a dart at a timeline or randomly dropping your finger onto a spinning globe, where should a World Cultures or World History teacher begin? Many textbooks present the history of the world as a chronological list of events. Others take a thematic approach, examining subject matters such as science, agriculture, or religion.

Consider examining the globe through a single region. By taking a deep dive into a region, students can become experts on one location while simultaneously covering myriad topics spanning time and space.

Set an Essential Question

After struggling in my World Cultures class to cover many countries and people, I realized the benefits of focusing on one distinct geographic or cultural area, and prioritizing quality over quantity.

Construct an essential question to frame the pedagogy and curriculum. There is no static formula, but take into account state standards, available teaching materials, and past experiences teaching the course. I determined that a two-part question would form the foundation for my class: “How does culture affect geography, and how does geography affect culture?” Consider creating a visual aid with the question and referencing it frequently. I have the question on a poster in my class, and in remote instruction I incorporate it into nearly every meeting with an opening activity or during discussion.

With the central question defined, identify key concepts for the curriculum. What are the overarching objectives of the class? Avoid sweeping learning targets that are difficult to measure or attain—for example, “Students will learn the history and culture of the countries studied.” To create my learning targets, I answered my own essential question: What geographic factors shape culture? First and foremost, people need water, and culture doesn’t exist without oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams, so I created an objective asking students to connect the accessibility of water to the development of human society. I asked the students to identify how humans manipulate the landscape to access water. The learning targets, like the essential question, are broad enough to apply to any part of the globe.

Define the Region

“Region” can be defined in multiple ways, and a teacher might select a political region, a cultural or linguistic region, or a geographic region. Choose a place that lends itself to the essential question and learning targets, as well as instructor skill sets and expertise. Don’t be afraid to embrace the practical choice and select a region for which materials are readily available.

Connect the choices to current events. Selecting regions based partially on the frequency of headlines in the news makes the learning relevant and helps students develop familiarity with places and cultures currently on the global stage. For example, in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, my class studied Asia, and China in particular. When students watched news clips on the pandemic, they discussed the population sizes of affected cities and considered how open and closed societies respond differently to national crises.

After studying the physical geography of the chosen region, explore its history, culture, and modern challenges through the prism of the essential question. For example, the Middle East has a long history that could take weeks to analyze. Using my essential question, I asked how the region’s geography affected its culture. Students pointed out the area’s oil reserves, and we analyzed how such an abundance of natural resources has shaped the political and cultural history of Middle Eastern nations.

Connect the Regions to the World

After students have built a knowledge base about a region, explore how that region has changed the world. What scientific discoveries, philosophies, or belief systems has this region contributed to the wider world? What art or elements of culture have emanated from this region?

Our lesson on the First Agricultural Revolution in the Fertile Crescent led to investigations of modern farming practices. Students discussed the ways in which having surplus food affects the economy and culture, namely the rise of permanent settlements, new professions, and even leisure time. Suddenly, students were making connections between their lives and the lives of farmers who lived 12,000 years ago.

Ask students to explore not only the influence of a region on the world, but also how the world affected the region.This might entail a study of colonialism, exploration, conflict, or economics. How have other nations and people transformed the region through war, movement, or cultural diffusion?

Latin America is a starting point for more in-depth investigations of European exploration, colonialism, and American foreign policy. I included lessons on either the Age of Discovery, the Mexican-American War, or the Monroe Doctrine to demonstrate the interconnectedness of our world. Emphasize the ways in which the history of the United States has shaped and been shaped by other countries, and underscore that no nation or culture exists in isolation. War and migration change borders. Political decisions made in one capital can impact a community of smallholder farmers 3,000 miles away in an entirely different country.

Challenge students to understand how the world at large continues to affect the region in question by using current events and modern situations. For example, asking how a virus that began in a wet market in Wuhan, China, can claim the lives of more than 100,000 Brazilians shows students the speed and relative ease of human movement.

By using one region as a base from which to study the entire world, teachers can avoid superficial drive-by studies of different parts of the globe. Students become experts in one region, better grasping the transformation, struggles, and successes of a place and its people, while also seeing the increasing interconnectedness of the world’s cultures and nations.  

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