What to teach: a body of knowledge:
overview - chronological narrative - conceptual frameworks - thinking strategies

What to teach:
conceptual frameworks

This is the second component of a world history and geography body of knowledge to be taught in school:
....... chronological narrative
....... conceptual frameworks
....... thinking strategies

What are conceptual frameworks?

It is the job of conceptual frameworks to connect and organize knowledge to make it more meaningful. Conceptual frameworks may go by a number of different names such as cognitive frameworks, core concepts, mental structures, mental models, scaffolding, schemas or big ideas. They are artificial structures imposed on reality to help us more effectively understand and manage reality. This pattern-making capacity has enabled humans to modify our relationship to our surroundings far more than any other species.

The alphabet, for example, is an artificial structure imposed on spoken language that enables us to read and write. Regions are artificial constructs imposed on areas of the earth's surface. You are reading about one component of a three-part structure imposed on the question of "what to teach" in history classrooms.

A review of literature from history education and cognitive research strongly suggests that conceptual frameworks, by whatever name, contribute to meaningful understanding and should be a major component of history education. This is especially true in world history classrooms where the volume of potential content to be assimilated can be overwhelming. Students need conceptual frameworks to make sense of history, to give it meaning and to make it usable. Following are several types of conceptual frameworks that have roles to play in history education.


History and geography educators often speak in terms of "themes" that represent an interest in phenomena that are manifested across several historical periods and/or geographic locations, and thus may offer useful insights into how humans generally behave and how the world generally works. Cultural diffusion is an example of one such recurring theme; when two cultures meet peaceably or in war, both cultures learn from one another and are forever changed by the encounter.

The Bradley Commission on History in Schools has said, "To develop judgment and perspective, historical study must often focus upon broad, significant themes and questions, rather than short-lived memorization of facts without context." Education researcher Sam Wineburg offers an example of how 11th grade American history teacher Elizabeth Jensen uses an historical theme, Enlightenment views of human nature, to serve as a framework for understanding the development of American government:

"For her, American history is more than particular dates, persons, or legislative acts. History centers on such themes as authority, freedom, and representation - themes that bind past to present and provide a framework for organizing the mass of information in the eleventh-grade curriculum. This framework guides her curricular decisions, allowing her to foreshadow ideas months before her students confront them. For example, when she introduces eighteenth-century views of human nature at the beginning of the year, she knows that these same issues will resurface in discussions of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and federalism."1

The Bradley Commission termed the study of themes "indispensable" and suggested six "vital themes" for historical study (although they appear to number about a dozen).2 Unlike geography educators who have reduced their themes to five or six essential elements, history teachers have reached no such consensus. Several collections of themes are listed at the end of this article.

The broad forces of history might serve as a useful structure for organizing themes. The following six historical forces, with their related sub-themes, appear to encompass most, if not all, of the themes included in the collections listed at the end of this article.

  • INVENTION, involves language, learning, planning-ahead, natural resources, technology, religion, art, agriculture, government, philosophy, law, science
  • DIFFUSION, involves geography, learning, exploration, travel, trade, migration, warfare
  • ORGANIZATION, involves geography, regions, language, learning, planning-ahead, job specialization, waterways, irrigation systems, roads and other public works, trade, social hierarchies, government, civilization, tribes, nation-building, empire-building, communications, law, organized religions, armies and other institutions
  • POWER, involves greed, war, oppression, slavery, servitude, ethnic conflict, racism, gender, nationalism, imperialism, empire-building
  • FREEDOM, involves revolt, democracy, suffrage, liberalism, nationalism, independence movements
  • DISINTEGRATION, involves warfare, conquest, disease, cultural and institutional rigidity, civil unrest and the decline of organizational structures including governments, countries, empires, cultures, and civilizations

Rather than listing themes as though they all carried equal weight in the education of our young, we might wish to identify the most important "meaningful understandings" that students should learn in order to live effectively in the world. This may be a more efficient and logical approach to teaching world history and geography.

In my view, meaningful understandings are a species of historical knowledge very different from the extensive list of factual events cataloged in the National History Standards, and also distinct from broad themes like "civilization" identified by the Bradley Commission. Meaningful understandings occupy a middle ground between these poles, being broader than individual events and more specific and concrete than themes. The following list provides some flavor of the kind of important meaningful understandings that we might wish our children to gain from an historical education.

Examples of Meaningful Understandings

How humans behave:

  • Lust for wealth and power
  • Intolerance of cultural difference
  • Propensity for violence and warfare
  • Spiritual yearning
  • Desire for freedom
  • Love and altruism
  • Drive toward knowledge and advancement
  • Are humans basically good or evil?

How the world works:

  • General understanding of the development of human societies through the ages and across the regions of the world
  • Diffusion:
    • Peaceful contacts: trade, migration, teaching, communications
    • Hostile contacts: warfare, conquest, enslavement
    • Disease
    • Influence of geography and climate
  • Characteristics of important world-historical cultures
  • Familiarity with major regions and features of the Earth.
  • Awareness that technology changes society and the environment in large and unforeseeable ways
  • Are humans progressing other than technologically?
  • The nature of democracy, its problems and strengths
  • Conservative versus liberal tendencies
  • How did European culture come to dominate the modern world?
  • Recent historical developments leading to current international and environmental conditions
  • Awareness that knowledge is created by subjective humans based on incomplete evidence; it may be biased, misleading or wrong.
  • Ability to critically examine various sides of an issue.
  • Economic justice as viewed from different world perspectives.
  • When is war appropriate?

For a more complete discussion of education based on meaningful understandings, please see "How to teach: toward a philosophy of meaning."


In the same breath that it mentioned themes, The Bradley Commission said that significant "questions" could likewise help students develop judgment and perspective. "How did the French Revolution and Napoleon change Europe?" is a significant question relating to a particular period in history. "What would have been the consequences if the Normandy Invasion had failed?" points up the contingency aspect of history. "What role did nationalism play in triggering World War I?" contributes to a causal analysis of the Great War.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development has published a series of guides to curriculum design for teachers called "Understanding by Design." These materials emphasize building curriculum around "essential understandings" and the use of questions as "doorways to understanding...Without such questions to focus instruction, teaching easily falls into superficial and purposeless coverage...Important ideas must be questioned and verified if they are to be understood."3

Historical questions encompassing broad spans of time can be compelling to students. These are some of the big questions considered by students in my history classes (some are included in the meaningful understandings identified above):

-Are people basically good or evil?
-Does reason or emotion rule our actions?
-Is history determined by geography?
-Can one person change history, or does history change only because society is ready for change?
-How did European culture come to dominate the modern world?
-Has the supremacy of European culture been good or bad for the rest of the world?
-Which is more fair for the most people, communism or capitalism?
-Are humans progressing morally as well as technologically?
-Under what circumstances is it appropriate for the United States to go to war?

Obviously, these are questions about which philosophers, historians, politicians and high school students may disagree, but our best guide to considering these questions comes from a knowledge of what people have actually done - in other words, a knowledge of history. Precisely because there are no right or final answers to these questions, they are good questions for students to ponder as they construct their moral belief system and views of the contemporary world. These are the kinds of problematic, open-ended issues that students will face as adults, and these are the kinds of questions that students tend to encounter on my final exams (with specific historical examples required, of course).

Chronological narrative

Another type of conceptual framework is a chronological narrative that provides students with a broad view of historical development over time. "Chronological thinking," observed the National History Standards, "is at the heart of historical reasoning...chronology provides the mental scaffolding for organizing historical thought."4 A coherent chronological narrative gives students a context within which to consider important themes and questions. It is hardly possible to realize the force of themes such as the conflicting human drives toward power and freedom without encountering them at multiple points in the historical narrative. The subject of chronological narratives is discussed more fully in the preceding section of this website. (See: A chronological narrative.)


A timeline is a conceptual framework that presents a chronological summary of history in visual form. British educator Denis Shemilt has concluded that timelines must deal with more than limited periods of history: "It is necessary, in addition, for pupils to acquire a basic chronology that embraces the whole past and is represented in terms of significant phases of human history."5 The four timeline projects available in the Teacher's Aids section of this website, and the "Four Eras" timeline reproduced below, are examples of large-scale timelines.

4 Eras of History


A map is another conceptual framework of the visual variety. Maps provide the spatial orientation that students must have in order to comprehend the workings of history and the influence of geography. History and geography are simply two dimensions of the same phenomenon, the human experience on planet Earth. These dimensions of time and space are locked in a symbiotic dance, a perpetual interactive feedback loop in which one dimension is constantly affecting the other. Maps are the indispensable conceptual frameworks necessary for understanding the spatial dimension.

Graphic organizers

Graphic organizers are another type of conceptual framework that presents information in visual form. If a picture is worth a thousand words, graphic organizers attempt to harness the prodigious information-bearing capacity of visual images to transmit knowledge. Graphic organizers may take many forms; a flow chart is a type of graphic organizer as is the timeline reproduced above. When teachers introduce new material by drawing a "web" of related terms and concepts on the chalk board, they are using a graphic organizer. A Venn diagram that maps differences and overlapping similarities between related phenomena is another type of graphic organizer. Sometimes we encounter "lists of things" all dressed-up with colorful boxes and circles and called "graphic organizers," but these decorated lists are poor representatives of the genre.

Thinking strategies

Yet another conceptual framework is the heuristics, or set of analytic skills, students use to understand complex subjects and make sense of incomplete or conflicting historical information. Development of these abilities is seen as a useful life skill that students may bring to their understanding of future historical developments that will be encountered later in life, issues such as free choice in a democratic society, ethnic or economic conflict, terrorism, globalization, social justice, global warming and ethical questions surrounding genetic engineering. Thinking strategies constitute one of the three components of the body of world history and geography knowledge described on this website; they are explored more fully in the next section. (See: Thinking strategies.)

Research on conceptual frameworks

In 1999, the National Research Council (NRC) released a major study titled How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. The central theme of this report was that the mind uses experience to "develop coherent structures of information"6 that are meaningful to the learner and are stored in memory where these structures form the basis of understanding, thinking and problem solving.

The NRC report cited research studies that compared the thinking of experts to the thinking of novices, not because teachers expect their students to become experts, but because experts solve problems better than novices do. Researchers wanted to know what it is about experts that makes them good at thinking and problem solving. According to the NRC report, expert knowledge "is not simply a list of facts and formulas that are relevant to their domain (area of expertise); instead, their knowledge is organized around core concepts or 'big ideas' that guide their thinking about their domains."7

The NRC report cited a study by Sam Wineburg in which a group of history experts and a group of high-achieving advanced placement high school seniors were given the task of making sense of primary source documents from American history. Although several of the students outscored several of the historians on a factual test of American history, the historians excelled at evaluating and understanding the documents because they possessed useful conceptual frameworks. The students "had no systematic way of making sense of contradictory claims...They lacked the experts' deep understanding of how to formulate reasoned interpretations of sets of historical documents. Experts in other social sciences also organize their problem solving around big ideas."8

What are the implications of this research for education? The NRC report made these observations:

"Research on expertise suggests the importance of providing students with learning experiences that specifically enhance their abilities to recognize meaningful patterns of information."

"Many approaches to curriculum design make it difficult for students to organize knowledge meaningfully. Often there is only superficial coverage of facts before moving on to the next topic; there is little time to develop important, organizing ideas. History texts sometimes emphasize facts without providing support for understanding."

"The fact that experts' knowledge is organized around important ideas or concepts suggests that curricula should also be organized in ways that lead to conceptual understanding."9

For a broader discussion of research relevant to history education, see Learning and Thinking.

* The long-time consensus among geographers regarding the "Five Themes of Geography" is undergoing change. "Six essential elements" of geography suggested in the 1994 National Geography Standards are being adopted in state standards documents and in textbooks. After briefly mentioning the five themes, the 2003 edition of the Glencoe world geography textbook states that, "Most recently, geographers have begun to look at geography in a different way. Geography educators have created a set of eighteen learning standards called Geography for Life. Each of these eighteen standards is organized into six essential elements...Being aware of these elements will help you sort out what you are learning about geography."10 The six elements and the original five themes are identified below; click here.

A sampling of themes
in History and Geography

Bradley Commission on History in Schools,
Vital Themes and Narratives
1. Civilization, cultural diffusion, and innovation
2. Human interaction with the environment
3. Values, beliefs, political ideas, and institutions
4. Conflict and cooperation
5. Comparative history of major developments
6. Patterns of social and political interaction

Ten Themes of Social Studies
1. Culture
2. Time, Continuity, and Change
3. People, Places, and Environments
4. Individual Development and Identity
5. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
6. Power, Authority, and Governance
7. Production, Distribution, and Consumption
8. Science, Technology, and Society
9. Global Connections
10. Civic Ideals and Practices

AP (Advanced Placement) World History Themes
1. Impact of interaction among major societies (trade, systems of international exchange, war, and diplomacy).
2. The relationship of change and continuity across the world history periods covered in this course
3. Impact of technology and demography on people and the environment (population growth and decline, disease, manufacturing, migrations, agriculture, weaponry).
4. Systems of social structure and gender structure (comparing major features within and among societies and assessing change).
5. Cultural and intellectual developments and interactions among and within societies.
6. Changes in functions and structures of states and in attitudes toward states and political identities (political culture), including the emergence of the nation-state (types of political organization).

Themes, Prentice-Hall World History textbook, 1997
1. Continuity and change
2. Geography and history
3. Political and social systems
4. Religions and value systems
5. Economics and technology
6. Diversity
7. Impact on the individual
8. Global interactions
9. Art and literature

Themes, Glencoe World History textbook, 2003
1. Politics and history
2. The Role of Ideas
3. Economics and history
4. The importance of cultural development
5. Religion in history
6. The role of individuals
7. The impact of science and technology
8. The environment and history
9. Social life

The Five Themes of Geography
1. Location: latitude and longitude and relative
2. Place: the natural and human characteristics of a particular site
3. Human/environment interaction: positive and negative effects of human occupation
4. Movement: of people, materials, and information from location to location
5. Region: areas on the Earth's surface with unifying characteristics

Six Essential Elements, National Geography Standards
1. The world in spatial terms
2. Places and regions
3. Physical systems
4. Human systems
5. Environment and society
6. The Uses of Geography

Themes from Colorado Standards in History
-Societies are diverse and have changed over time
-Science, technology, economic activity
-Political institutions and theories
-Religious and philosophical ideas

Themes from Colorado Standards in Geography
-physical and human characteristics of place, regions
-physical processes shape Earth's surface patterns and systems
-economic, political, cultural, and social processes shape human patterns
-human/environment interaction. resources
-use of geography to understand the past, present and future

John Price
History teacher John Price encourages his students to explore the values and motives that influence the actions of historical figures. Students will find these perspectives useful for examining the actions of future players on the historical stage.

Historian William H. McNeill
-"Human power and wealth have increased through time because people strive for them. People are perpetually on the lookout for new skills or ideas that will increase their wealth and power."

-"Elaboration and diffusion of skills are as old as the emergence of humanity, whose distinctive trait is learning how to do things from others."

-"World history ought to be organized around major breakthroughs in communication that, step by step, intensified interactions within ever larger regions of the earth..."21

Jaques Barzun
In his cultural history of the Modern Era, Barzun refers to emancipation as perhaps the most characteristic theme of modern culture and primitivism ,"The longing to shuffle off the complex arrangements of an advanced culture," as its parallel theme.

Loomis Chaffee School, Windsor, Connecticut
"First and foremost...is the examination of themes of cultural diffusion, migration, and encounter, for cultural interaction represents the driving force of world history."

Ross E. Dunn
Dunn is a history professor and Director of World History Projects at the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA. He has identified these themes of world history education: empire, trade, belief systems, imperialism, gender, nationalism, power, economy, class, custom, technology, and disease.24

Peter Seixas
This college professor and former school teacher suggests the related themes of progress and decline.25

April, 2002

More about teaching history and geography:

The following books cited in this article are available from the studentsfriend.com online store.

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts by Sam Wineburg

Teaching World History: A Resource Book, by Heidi Roupp

Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe

The following publications are available online:

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School from the National Research Council.

National Geography Standards


1. Wineburg, Sam, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Temple University Press, 2001

2. Bradley Commission on History in Schools, Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools, National Council for History Education,1988

3. Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay, Understanding by Design, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998.

4. National Standards for History, Basic Edition, National Center for History in the Schools, 1996

5. Shemilt, Denis, "The Caliph's Coin: The Currency of Narrative Frameworks in History Teaching," in Stearns, Peter N., et all, editors, Knowing, Teaching & Learning History, New York University Press, 2000

6. Bransford, John D., Brown, Ann l., and Cocking, Rodney R., eds, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, National Research Council, 1999

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Boehm, Richard G., Glencoe World Geography, Glencoe McGraw-Hill, 2003

11. Bradley Commission on History in Schools, Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools, National Council for History Education,1988

12. Wheeler, Ron, Teaching the Ten Themes of Social Studies, Frank Shafer Publications, 1996. These themes are "based on curriculum standards for social studies developed by the National Council for the Social Studies."

13. World History Course Description, New York: The College Board, 2001

14. Elliss, Elisabeth Gaynor and Esler, Anthony, World History: Connections to Today, Prentice Hall, 1997

15. Spielvogel, Jackson J., Glencoe World History, Glencoe McGraw-Hill, 2003

16. Excerpts from Geography for Life, National Geography Standards , 1994. © National Geographic Research & Exploration, 1994, on behalf of the American Geographical Society, Association of American Geographers, National Council for Geographic Education, and the National Geographic Society.

17. Boehm, Richard G., Glencoe World Geography, Glencoe McGraw-Hill, 2003

18. Excerpts from Model Content Standards in History, Colorado Department of Education

19. Excerpts from Model Content Standards in Geography, Colorado Department of Education

20. Wineburg, Sam, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Temple University Press, 2001

21. McNeill, William H., "World History," in Roupp, Heidi, editor, Teaching World History: A Resource Book, M.E. Sharpe, 1997

22. Barzun, Jacques, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, HarperCollins, 2000

23. Andrian, Bob, "World History: Not Why? but What? and How?," in Roupp, Heidi, editor, Teaching World History: A Resource Book, M.E. Sharpe, 1997

24. Dunn, Ross E., "Constructing Woeld History in the Classroom," in Stearns, Peter N., et all, editors, Knowing, Teaching & Learning History, New York University Press, 2000

25. Seixas, Peter, "Schweigen! die Kinder! or, Does Postmodern History Have a Place in the Schools," in Stearns, Peter N., et all, editors, Knowing, Teaching & Learning History, New York University Press, 2000

© 2001 - 2014 maxwell learning l.l.c.

search studentsfriend.com