Make your own free website on

Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads


Note to Students
Click here if you are joining the trip for the first time.

Join the Trip
Maps & Facts
Background and Philosophy
Teacher Classroom Resources
E-Mail Avi
Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads

How to "include" Southeast Asia in the World History Class

Let's assume that studying Southeast Asia is both interesting and important to our students. Hopefully, we share the view that such study creates strong opportunities to engage students (especially Southeast Asians, but others as well), and to do so along substantive lines of inquiry.

But HOW can we do so? If it's yet another "add-on", you might say, FORGET IT. Frankly, that's what I would say!

I would like to suggest that including, rather than adding on, Southeast Asian history and culture into a class based on California's World History Framework "continuum" (grades 6, 7 and 10) or on other similar frameworks requires a substantial restructuring of the class curriculum. Sounds intimidating, to be sure! BUT, such restructuring need not require, I believe, an abandonment of one's current repertoire of activities, lessons and units. It does, however, require a fundamental shift away from focusing those activities on CONTENT towards focusing them more on fundamental THEMES of world history. Doing so does NOT mean missing out on "covering" those topics mandated in the frameworks! It means instead covering them more substantively, and in a way that is more meaningful, relevant and INTERESTING to students.

In this section, I will make some suggestions of how such a "restructuring" might be done. I do not wish to imply that this is the only way to do so, but rather hope to open further discussion on the topic by putting forth a particular approach I and others I have worked with find particularly exciting and workable. I also do this in order to set a context for my work on this web site, and to help explain why the site is structured as it is. I will only give a general outline here; a more detailed description of this approach, which essentially involves teaching world history chronologically and globally rather than by region or "civilization", is contained in a series of works I co-authored with colleagues in the San Francisco Unified School District. If you are interested in knowing more about it, contact me at and I will refer you to contacts who will be glad to help you get further information.

Globalizing World History: A Thematic Approach

One way to make a world history class more thematically-oriented is to organize that class chronologically rather than regionally. By looking for common threads of human experience that emerged globally at important points in time, one can identify important themes that can be used to organize and focus students' thinking and understanding about the past and how it has influenced the world they live in today. These themes can be used also to compare and contrast events in different regions of the world, including those now left out of the curriculum -- such as Southeast Asia. The key is to look for those themes that are worthy of inclusion AND that are BEST illuminated by study of a variety of different places rather than just those presently included.

In concrete terms, this means organizing the world history class around units different from those found in the most commonly-used textbooks. Let me use the sixth-grade "Ancient Civilizations" class from the California Framework as an example, as that is my area of expertise; the same arguments apply for the grade 7 and grade 10 classes. (I prefer to title my class "Ancient Societies" in recognition of the contributions of those who lived outside the "civilized" areas so described by those who lived inside them.) Such classes regularly follow the scheme used in the Houghton-Mifflin text where ancient history is studied regionally, from Mesopotamia to Egypt and then on to India, China, Greece and Rome. The alternative structure I suggest would have units with titles like "Early Human Cultures", "The Emergence of Agriculture", "The First Cities", "The Rise of Nation-States" and "The First Empires". Each of these units studies global phenomena that can be compared very effectively across different regions of the world, through exploration of themes and key essential questions that engage student interest and challenge their critical thinking skills.

In such a scheme, for example, the development of LAW is a central theme. It can be studied comparatively across cultures in the unit on "nation-states", while at the same time exploring how rule by law influences our lives today. In the traditional sequence, "law" comes up as a topic usually only when studying Hammurabi and his "code" in the unit on Mesopotamia -- as if law only came into play in that one place and at that one time in the ancient world. Few teachers I've spoken to who use the regional approach take this opportunity to compare Hammurabi's Code to modern law codes, either. I believe this is not for lack of interest nor of understanding of the importance of studying "law" as a topic, but rather because thematic focus is so easily lost within that regional approach, replaced instead with an emphasis on covering as much "content" as possible -- so that Hammurabi's Code is introduced, but the reasons that law first developed (and what forms of social organization existed before to deal with "anti-social" behavior) are never addressed.

Here is another example from that sixth-grade class. After exploring the earliest human societies, such classes usually move into the study of ancient Mesopotamia. Between the two units, it is common to touch upon the rise of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent as a prelude to exploring the rise of "civilization" in Mesopotamia. In fact, agriculture arose independently in several places around the globe, and even if it did begin first in Mesopotamia it also developed soon thereafter in China and (some evidence suggests) elsewhere as well. Agriculture also spread steadily from its centers to other places. To associate agriculture exclusively with Mesopotamia, then, is inaccurate -- but, more importantly, isolating its study in this way clearly underemphasizes agriculture's importance to human societies. I know myself that when I first taught this course using the text-driven scheme, my students used to come away thinking that once cities arose, agriculture disappeared from the earth -- rather than understanding that most people on the planet still live in rural settings!

How to address this problem? One way would be to look at agriculture from a GLOBAL perspective. This would imply comparing and contrasting, at the point in the course mentioned above (after studying early humanity), the different approaches taken in different parts of the world to "domesticating" the land and its creatures (and, how the land in each place "domesticated" its people!). Doing so can open up the possibility of exploring "agriculture" as a central theme and establishing its continuing importance in the world to this day. How did the change for so many people to food production affect human life and the life of the planet? Did that change constitute "progress"? What IS "progress"? What role does agriculture play in our lives today? Those essential questions are not only important, but they also engage students, and prompt them to think critically in ways essential to their intellectual and social development.

Again, while this sounds complicated and suggests having to totally change a curriculum, it need not be that way! Much of this can be done by simple reordering of activities and with an ear tuned to the importance of focusing on central themes. And if done well, it does NOT leave out anything set out in the frameworks, but rather organizes it so that the context in which it is addressed is more meaningful, compelling and engaging to students. To be done well, it does require the use of some additional materials, to be sure. This site is designed to provide such material, for one. We also have much we've collected in San Francisco for such purposes. Ask!

One last point, related to this web site in particular: how does such an approach and perspective lend itself to including an area like Southeast Asia, heretofore left out of the curriculum? Are there themes for which events in Southeast Asia do such a great job of "elaboration" that they beg to be included in the curriculum? I will address these questions once again with an example. Southeast Asia presents fascinating perspective on how Buddhism has taken on different faces in different places -- practices and beliefs of Buddhists in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and elsewhere are far different from those in China, Japan or the U.S., for example, though the core values and even many of the key stories used to teach those values remain the same. How did they come to be so different? If we teach in a regional curricular scheme, this question is unlikely to be addressed -- and, indeed, the very fact that such diversity exists in the modern world of Buddhism will not be brought up. The only time when Buddhism is introduced to students in the current series of textbooks used most commonly in California classrooms is at the time when the Buddha himself lived; it is as if Buddhism has not changed since that time! Imagine teaching about Christianity only by teaching about the life of Jesus Christ, without addressing how Christianity affected the lives of millions as it developed, spread and changed over the years. Most teachers would find this an inappropriate omission, and the same should be said about the study of other major world faiths such as Buddhism and Islam. By studying Buddhism only through the life of the Buddha himself, an opportunity is lost to bring into the classroom an important part of the lives of many of our students, and one from which those who are not Buddhist can learn a great deal.

If, instead, a thematic approach is used in the classroom, it is easy to see how "the diffusion of religions" could be an important topic to address in a seventh-grade world history class. Southeast Asia would then be an excellent place to observe how Buddhism took on different forms in different places due to the different circumstances surrounding its development in each. In classes with students who share Buddhist backgrounds but practice in different ways, this would create the opportunity for them to share with their peers an important part of their lives while exploring how historical events shaped our world today. Again, to do so requires having the MATERIALS to support such study in the classroom as well as ideas for how to use them in stimulating ways. This site presents one example of the work we can do to share such materials and insights with one another.

The Structure of a Global/Chronological World History Class and Curriculum: ONE Suggestion

I will not go into detail here about how to arrange units in a "global/chronological" world history class. There are many different ways to do so. One source of inspiration I found is a book published by Smithsonian titled "Timelines of the Ancient World"; another is the Time/Life "TimeFrames" series. Both break down world history into key eras and examine important events and developments around the globe during those periods. The National History Standards put out by UCLA's National Center for History in the Schools also uses this approach and is an excellent resource, as is the Source Book of activities they publish to support teaching towards those standards. The documents I helped co-author in San Francisco rely on all of these resources to outline one possible arrangement of units, with supporting materials including numerous lesson plans and primary sources and even a guide to using the textbook as a supplementary resource in teaching world history chronologically.

A Four-Part Course

With many ways to organize the class, the choice should be predicated, I believe, upon the goals one has for students taking the class. Here is a short list of my own objectives:

--to establish students' personal identities by comparing their own to those of their fellow students, thereby establishing a place for themselves in a multicultural society

--to lend to students some historical perspective to matters of current interest and importance to them

--to encourage in students a sense of social responsibility and a commitment to civic activity

--to clear up and to challenge common (and often unstated) assumptions, distortions, misperceptions and misconceptions that students bring to the classroom

To me, this all must be done as the antithesis of brainwashing, by establishing an atmosphere in which all views are welcomed and, at the same time, subject to open inquiry and questioning. I believe that in sharing their ideas, students will come to learn of new ways to view the world, some of which they will reject and some of which they will embrace -- and through the consideration of which they will grow.

You may agree with these goals, or you may disagree. Either way, it IS through outlining such objectives that the structuring of a course emerges.

The second and third objectives above, for example, have led me to organize my course in a way that I believe advances the study of thematic history and makes the course relevant to students. To achieve these, students must be able...

--to see, first, how the world really IS;

--then, to explore WHY it is that way (in other words, HOW it BECAME that way);

--next, to ascertain how the world COULD be, by keeping the good and discarding the bad (understanding that it doesn't HAVE to be as it is, nor does it have to STAY as it is);

--and finally, to explore how they can MAKE it become the way they would like it to be.

These four "pillars" have become the structural elements of my course. At the beginning of the year, we explore modern human societies from around the globe -- establishing, for example, that hunting/gathering societies still exist (though likely not for much longer!) and that such people hold value to the world, so that students will not later in the course gain the false impression that early hunting/gathering societies were "primitive" and appropriately disappeared from the face of the earth once superior agrarian and urban societies developed. The bulk of the course then focuses on the second "pillar", the history of ancient societies, the study of which now makes sense in terms of explaining how we became the way we are. The third and fourth pillars are imbedded into the course as foci of "service learning" experiences, and are also emphasized at the end of the year to synthesize students' learnings and to give meaning to that learning that they can carry outside the classroom.

To me, it is amazing how this type of organizing opens up the class to considering truly meaningful issues. When we study the modern world, students inevitably bring up incredible questions: why ARE there rich and poor people? Why ARE there gangs? Does there have to be violence in the world -- when did it start and why, and what can be done to end it? I find such questions infinitely more interesting than those about which dynasty replaced which in ancient Egypt, or even about how the Spartans trained their young to become warriors. When we move to the second unit and begin to explore the answers, the class comes alive! And, I believe, the students come out of there with a much more comprehensive understanding of the past and why it is important to study it.

Again, this is ONE way of organizing the class, in this case around specific objectives. I suggest this in order to open discussion about new ways to make world history classes more meaningful and interesting, to students and teachers alike!

A Two-Pronged Approach (The Double Helix?)

A common response I receive to this suggestion is: what about COVERAGE? There comes that word again! (And, again, very legitimately...) If a teacher spends a valuable month at the beginning of the year studying the MODERN world, that takes a month away from an already strained schedule to cover everything about the ANCIENT world set into the framework. And to add in a service learning component, let alone information on Southeast Asia and the Americas and other places not covered in the framework -- it can't be done!!

As before, my answer is simple: say not that it cannot be done, but ask HOW can it be done? I believe there ARE ways to focus students study so that coverage becomes less of an issue, IF we ask what it is exactly that we want students to accomplish in the course.

I will argue here that there are two major components to be addressed in a history class, those being SKILLS DEVELOPMENT and CONTENT MASTERY. Content IS important, as is the learning of skills to be used in working with historical information. These two components are intertwined: content serve as the context, or the framework, for developing skills. The questions become: which skills are essential to develop, and how can they be best developed? What content is essential to be familiar with, and how can that familiarity be fostered?

The answers to these questions help define the organization of a world history class just as does the consideration of the philosophical objectives described above. Development of skills must be scaffolded during the year so that students become progressively more adept at USING the factual information they encounter, both to think critically about key questions and to express clearly the views they develop around those issues. The National History Standards lay out five dimensions of historical thought and action that together comprise what can be termed "historical literacy": chronological thinking; historical comprehension; historical analysis and interpretation; historical research capabilities; and historical issues analysis and decision-making. A well-designed class must work to develop such literacy, while giving students opportunities to present their thoughts in written and oral forms. A class organized around themes, with an emphasis on exploring key concepts and identifying key vocabulary definitions, clearly helps to develop such historical literacy.

In addressing content, it is critical to consider at all times what content is truly essential. If we cannot answer a student's question about "why?" we are teaching what we are teaching, we not only risk losing that student's (and others') interest and participation, we risk teaching what is irrelevant and useless. What if we, as teachers, were to limit the amount of material we "present" to students, whether through lecture or more interactive activities, to only those things that we consider absolutely essential? We could then leave time for students themselves to drive the class to a greater degree, by doing research on subjects of strong personal interest and sharing their findings with one another. This approach requires teaching students HOW to do effective research, and also necessitates finding good materials for them to do research with. It also requires finding effective ways to process learnings with students and to assess their learnings, so that we know that essential material has been addressed and students are left with a clear understanding of that material. But, the point is, it CAN be done, and if it is. it can result in broad coverage while touching on truly meaningful issues.

In my own sixth-grade class, what this has meant in terms of course organization is setting up an introductory unit that introduces key concepts (of culture, chronology and geography) by allowing students to explore them in familiar contexts (i.e., in their own family and community) and then having them create products based on basic research and presentation skills. As the year progresses and the material becomes more sophisticated and abstract, students do other projects that expand their skills until, by the last unit, they can research in depth (with a cooperative group) one "key" society and present their findings to the class while, at the same time, showing the understandings they have gained from other students' presentations.

The suggestions above set the context for my work on this web site. The next section addresses how the site is structured in order to further these kinds of approaches to teaching world history.


I have encountered skepticism during my travels that sixth- or even seventh-graders can successfully manage the kind of high-level conceptual thinking this kind of approach requires. One line of criticism goes: students need to develop basic skills, like writing and reading, before they can deal with abstract ideas. If you read carefully the description I give of the theme-based class, I believe you'll find that I do not downplay the need to develop those basic skills. Indeed, I see the development of those skills as key to being able to DO something with the ideas being studied! However, I'd also argue: what good are those skills WITHOUT the ideas behind them? Dealing with abstract ideas IS a basic skill -- a "higher-order thinking skill"!! I will even argue that it is the development of THOSE skills that MUST be emphasized in social studies classes. It's certainly not that you cannot, or should not, strongly reinforce the development of writing and reading skills in social studies classes; but, to go against the sentiments of some, I would say that work on those skills should NOT be at the CENTER of the social science class. That is the purview of the language arts class, in my thinking. (Others would argue for strong integration of the two classes, an idea with which I very strongly agree; whether or not to achieve such integration through the "coring" of the two subjects is another discussion, however.) I believe that the ultimate and clear goal of the social studies class MUST be: to challenge students to think about the world they live in in different ways. This is of critical importance to students' educations! Downplaying it in the curriculum plays down students' brilliance, too -- for many, consideration of such issues is a great strength, and one they must be given an opportunity to express.

A second criticism I have encountered is that students of ages 11 and 12 are not yet developmentally ready to encounter such sophisticated ideas as "power" or "chronology". I find this claim to be demeaning to young people (the many I know, anyway), and blatantly untrue. A simple argument might suffice to dash this argument. Have you ever read letters from young adults of "high standing" to their parents during, say, the Civil War or Revolutionary eras? Is it that youth were "brighter" in those days? I would say CERTAINLY not, for what would suggest that people are inherently moving backwards in intelligence? I would argue that it is more that we rarely challenge our students with deep ideas, the way those young people were. I have found that when so challenged, the youth I teach DO respond, and indeed with very deep understanding. A caveat: the questions we address MUST be relevant to students' lives, and not completely divorced from their worlds; and where the connection is tenuous, it is up to us to help make that connection more tangible. Making connections between past and present is indeed highly challenging, but I find constantly that when students see the connection, they meet that challenge head-on and reveal a clear vision of the world that often gives me new perspectives, too. Even abstractions related to chronology (how long IS a thousand years, anyway?) are understandable IF they're actually TAUGHT and not given up on, in the thought that students don't have enough "life experience" to really "get" it. (I know I gained new understandings about time when I hit forty, for sure.) The key is: WE have to TEACH it -- if we do, and find ways to do so effectively, our students WILL get it!!

Part 1 Why Southeast Asia?
Part 2 How to include S.E. Asia in the World History class.
Part 3 How this web site is organized: Content/Themes
Part 4 How this web site is organized: Structure
Part 5 A Word On My Choice of Prints
Part 6 Thematic check-list
Part 7 A Request for Critiques and Support

Copyright 1999 by Avi Black
Reproduction or distribution of the content of this site is authorized only for non-commercial and non-profit educational uses.
If you have been charged for use of this site, please contact
This page is maintained by Todd Greenspan for Avi Black
Comments and suggestions welcome.
Last update