Developing Standards

Periodization for U.S. History

Approaching World History

Periodization for World History

Historical Understanding

Historical Thinking

Integrating Standards in Historical Understanding and Thinking


Students should understand that the periods into which the written histories of the United States or the world are divided are simply constructions made by historians trying to impose some order on what is inherently an untidy past that can be read and conceptualized in a variety of ways. In a nation of such diversity as the United States, no periodizing scheme will work for all groups. American Indian history has benchmarks and eras that sometimes but not always overlap with those of European settlers in the colonial period. For that matter, Iroquois history would have to be periodized differently from Sioux or Zuni history. African American history would have its own watersheds, such as the shift from white indentured servitude to black slave labor in the South, the abolition of the slave trade, the beginning of emigrationism, and so forth. So also with women’s history and with Mexican American history.

Nonetheless, we believe that teachers will appreciate a periodization that attempts to blend political and social history. For this purpose, political events in United States history such as the American Revolution, the Constitution, the Civil War, Progressivism, the New Deal, and the Cold War-all of which have fairly definite beginning and end points-continue to provide breakpoints in the United States history curriculum. The industrial revolution, the labor movement, environmentalism, shifts in childrearing and family size, and so forth have no such precise beginning and end points and cut across eras defined by revolution, civil war, depression, and the like. In fact, none of the college texts in United States History that have tried in recent years to infuse social history into political and institutional history have been able to get around the general determinancy of wars and political reform movements and the indeterminancy of demographic, cultural, and social transformations.We have tried to overcome, in part, the difficulties inherent in periodizing history by overlapping eras to demonstrate that there really is no such thing as an era’s beginning or ending, and that all such schemes are simply the historian’s way of trying to give some structure to the course of history. The ten eras selected for periodizing United States history are presented below:

Era 1: Three Worlds Meet (Beginnings to 1620)

Era 2: Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)

Era 3: Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)

Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)

Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Era 8: The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)

Era 9: Postwar United States (1945-early 1970s)

Era 10: Contemporary United States (1968-present)


These standards rest on the premise that our schools must teach a comprehensive history in which all students may share. That means a history that encompasses humanity. In writing the standards a primary task was to identify those developments in the past that involved and affected relatively large numbers of people and that had broad significance for later generations. Some of these developments pertain to particular civilizations or regions. Others involve patterns of human interconnection that extended across cultural and political boundaries. Within this framework students are encouraged to explore in depth particular cases of historical change that may have had only regional or local importance but that exemplify the drama and human substance of the past.

These standards represent a forceful commitment to world-scale history. No attempt has been made, however, to address the histories of all identifiable peoples or cultural traditions. The aim rather is to encourage students to ask large and searching questions about the human past, to compare patterns of continuity and change in different parts of the world, and to examine the histories and achievements of particular peoples or civilizations with an eye to wider social, cultural, or economic contexts.


As in United States History, arranging the study of the past into distinct periods of time is one way of imposing a degree of order and coherence on the incessant, fragmented flow of events. Historians have devised a variety of periodization designs for World History to make it intelligible. Students should understand that every one of these designs is a creative construction reflecting the historian’s particular aims, preferences, and cultural or social values.

A periodization of world history that encompasses the grand sweep of the human past can make sense only at a relatively high level of generalization. Historians have also worked out periodizations for particular civilizations, regions, and nations, and these have their own validity, their own benchmarks and turning points. The history of India, for example, would necessarily be periodized differently than would the history of China or Europe, since the major shifts in Indian history relate to the Gupta age, the Mughal empire, the post-independence era, and so on.

We believe that as teachers work toward a more integrated study of world history in their classrooms they will appreciate having a periodization design that encourages study of those broad developments that have involved large segments of the world’s population and that have had lasting significance. The standards are divided into nine eras of world history. The title of each era attempts to capture the very general character of that age. Note that the time periods of some of the eras overlap in order to incorporate both the closure of certain developments and the start of others. The beginning and ending dates should be viewed as approximations representing broad shifts in the human scene.

Era 1: The Beginnings of Human Society

Era 2: Early Civilizations and the Emergence of Pastoral Peoples, 4000-1000 BCE

Era 3: Classical Traditions, Major Religions, and Giant Empires, 1000 BCE-300 CE

Era 4: Expanding Zones of Exchange and Encounter, 300-1000 CE

Era 5: Intensified Hemispheric Interactions, 1000-1500 CE

Era 6: Emergence of the First Global Age, 1450-1770

Era 7: An Age of Revolutions, 1750-1914

Era 8: A Half-Century of Crisis and Achievement, 1900-1945

Era 9: The 20th Century Since 1945: Promises and Paradoxes


History is a broadly integrative field, recounting and analyzing human aspirations and strivings in various spheres of human activity: social, political, scientific/technological, economic, and cultural. Studying history-inquiring into families, communities, states, nations, and various peoples of the world-at once engages students in the lives, aspirations, struggles, accomplishments, and failures of real people, in all these aspects of their lives.

Through social history, students come to deeper understandings of society: of what it means to be human, of different and changing views of family structures, of men’s and women’s roles, of childhood and of children’s roles, of various groups and classes in society, and of relationships among all these individuals and groups. This sphere considers how economic, religious, cultural, and political changes have affected social life, and it incorporates developments shaping the destiny of millions: the history of slavery; of class conflict; of mass migration and immigration; the human consequences of plague, war, and famine; and the longer life expectancy and rising living standards following upon medical, technological, and economic advances.

Through political history, students comprehend the political sphere of activity, as it has developed in their local community, their state, their nation, and in various societies of the world. Efforts to construct governments and institutions; the drive to seize and hold power over others; the struggle to achieve and preserve basic human rights, justice, equality, law, and order in societies; and the evolution of regional and world mechanisms to promote international law are all part of the central human drama to be explored and analyzed in the study of history.

Through history of science and technology, students learn how the scientific quest to understand nature, the world we live in, and humanity itself is as old as recorded history. So, too, is the quest to improve ways of doing everything from producing food, to caring for the ill, to transporting goods, to advancing economic security and the well-being of the group. Understandings of the scientific/technological developments that have propelled change, and how these changes have altered allother spheres of human activity are central to the study of history.

Through economic history, students appreciate the economic forces that have been crucial in determining the quality of people’s lives, in structuring societies, and in influencing the course of events. Exchange relationships within and between cultures have had major impacts on society and politics, producing changing patterns of regional, hemispheric, and global economic dominance and permitting the emergence in the 20th century of a truly international economy, with far-reaching consequences for all other spheres of activity.

Through cultural history, students learn how ideas, beliefs, and values have profoundly influenced human actions throughout history. Religion, philosophy, art, and popular culture have all been central to the aspirations and achievements of all societies, and have been a mainspring of historical change from earliest times. Students’ explorations of this sphere of human activity, through literature, sacred writings and oral traditions, political treatises, drama, art, architecture, music, and dance deepen their understandings of the human experience.

Analyzing these five spheres of human activity requires considering them in the contexts both of historical timeand geographic place. The historical record is inextricably linked to the geographic setting in which it developed. Population movements and settlements, scientific and economic activities, geopolitical agendas, and the distribution and spread of political, philosophical, religious, and aesthetic ideas are all related in some measure to geographic factors. The opportunities, limitations, and constraints with which any people have addressed the issues and challenges of their time have, to a significant degree, been influenced by the environment in which they lived or to which they have had access, and by the traces on the landscape, malignant or benign, irrevocably left by those who came before.

Because these five spheres of human activity are also interwoven in the real lives of individuals and societies, essential understandings in United States and World History often cut across these categories. Thus, to comprehend the causes of the American Revolution, students must address the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment, the competingeconomic interests of British mercantilism and colonial self-interest, the political antecedents defining the “rights of Englishmen” under English common law, the English Bill of Rights, and the Glorious Revolution, and the varying aspirations of different social groups in the colonies, defined by gender, race, economic status, and region.

Similarly, understanding the consequences of the American victory demonstrates how change in any one of these spheres of activity often has impact on some or all of the others. The many consequences of the colonists’ military victory included their development of new and lasting political institutions, the social and economic effects of the American victory on the various groups who entered the war with differing aspirations and who allied themselves with different sides during the conflict, and the long-term philosophical consequences of the American Revolution, inspiring what has been called the “Age of Democratic Revolution.” Together, these consequences demonstrate the complexity of historical events and the broadly integrative nature of history itself. They also affirm, once again, the unique power of history to deepen students’ understanding of the past, and of how we are still affected by it.

Likewise, in world history, in order to comprehend the forces leading to the Iberian Conquest of Mesoamerica in the 15th and 16th centuries, students must address theeconomics of the interregional trading system that linked peoples of Africa, Asia, and Europe on the eve of the European overseas voyages; the political and religious changes initiated with the rise of centralized monarchies of Spain and Portugal; and the major technological innovations that the Portuguese and Spanish made in shipbuilding, navigation, and naval warfare and the influence of northern Europe, Muslim, and Chinese maritime technology on these changes.

Similarly, understanding the consequences of the Iberian Conquest of Mesoamerica demonstrates how change in any one of these spheres of human activity often had impact on some or all of the others. The many consequences of the Iberian military victories included, for example, the founding of Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires in the Americas; the worldwide exchange of flora, fauna, and pathogens following the Columbian encounter, the social changes wrought by the subjugation and enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas; the devastating demographic effects caused by the introduction of new disease microorganisms into the Americas; the forced relocation and enslavement of some 10 million Africans in the European colonies; the changes in religious beliefs and practices that followed the introduction of Christianity into the Americas; and theeconomic and social effects of the infusion into the European economies of the vast gold and silver resources of the Americas. These many effects demonstrate the complexity of historical events and the broadly integrative nature of history itself. They also affirm, once again, the unique power of history to deepen students’ understanding of the past, and of how we are still affected by it.


Beyond defining what students should know-that is, the understandings in United States and World History that all students should acquire-it is essential to consider what students should be able to do to demonstrate their understandings and to apply their knowledge in productive ways.

The study of history involves much more than the passive absorption of facts, dates, names, and places. History is in its essence a process of reasoning based on evidence from the past. This reasoning must be grounded in the careful gathering, weighing and sifting of factual information such as names, dates, places, ideas, and events. However, the process does not stop here. Real historical understanding requires students to think through cause-and-effect relationships, to reach sound historical interpretations, and to conduct historical inquiries and research leading to the knowledge on which informed decisions in contemporary life can be based. These thinking skills are the processes of active learning.

Properly taught, history develops capacities for analysis and judgment. It reveals the ambiguity of choice, and it promotes wariness about quick, facile solutions which have so often brought human suffering in their wake. History fosters understanding of paradox and a readiness to distinguish between that which is beyond and that which is within human control, between the inevitable and the contingent. It trains students to detect bias, to weigh evidence, and to evaluate arguments, thus preparing them to make sensible, independent judgments, to sniff out spurious appeals to history by partisan pleaders, to distinguish between anecdote and analysis.

To acquire these capabilities, students must develop competence in the following five types of historical thinking:

  • Chronological thinking, developing a clear sense of historical time-past, present, and future-in order to identify the temporal sequence in which events occurred, measure calendar time, interpret and create time lines, and explain patterns of historical succession and duration, continuity and change.
  • Historical comprehension, including the ability to read historical narratives with understanding; to identify the basic elements of the narrative structure (the characters, situation, sequence of events, their causes, and their outcomes); and, to appreciate historical perspectives-that is, the ability to describe the past through the eyes and experiences of those who were there, as revealed through their literature, art, artifacts, and the like, and to avoid “present-mindedness,” judging the past solely in terms of the norms and values of today.
  • Historical analysis and interpretation, including the ability to compare and contrast different experiences, beliefs, motives, traditions, hopes, and fears of people from various groups and backgrounds, and at various times in the past and present; to analyze how these differing motives, interests, beliefs, hopes and fears influenced people’s behaviors; to consider multiple perspectives in the records of human experience and multiple causes in analyses of historical events; to challenge arguments of historical inevitability; and to compare and evaluate competing historical explanations of the past.
  • Historical research, including the ability to formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, artifacts, photos, visits to historical sites, and eyewitness accounts; to determine the historical time and context in which the artifact, document, or other record was created; to judge its credibility and authority; and to construct a sound historical narrative or argument concerning it.
  • Historical issues-analysis and decision-making, including the ability to identify problems that people confronted in the past; to analyze the various interests and points of view of people caught up in these situations; to evaluate alternative proposals for dealing with the problem(s); to analyze whether the decisions reached or the actions taken were sound ones and why; and, to bring historical perspectives to bear on informed decision-making in the present.


Chapter 2 presents the standards in historical thinking, largely independent of historical content in order to specify the quality of thinking desired for each. None of these skills in historical thinking, however, can be developed or even expressed in a vacuum. Every one of them requires historical content in order to function-a relationship made explicit in Chapters 3 and 4, in which the Standards integrating historical understanding and historical thinking are presented for all eras of United States and World History for grades 5 through 12.

The diagram on page 52 illustrates the approach taken to integrate historical thinking and historical understandings in the Standards. The example is drawn from the U.S. History Standards, Era 3, Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s). As illustrated, the five skills in historical thinking (the left side of the diagram) and the three historical understandings students should acquire concerning the American Revolution (the right side of the diagram) are integrated in the central area of overlap in the diagram in order to define (immediately below) Standard 1A: The student understands the causes of the American Revolution.

Page 53 provides a further illustration of this same standard, presented this time in the format in which the standards are stated (Chapters 3 and 4). The selection is again drawn from Era 3, Revolution and the New Nation. As illustrated, the standard first presents a statement defining what students should understand: “The causes of the American Revolution, the ideas and interests involved in forging the revolutionary movement, and the reasons for the American victory.”

Directly below the standard is standard component 1A, a statement which zooms in on part of the full standard. This statement is followed by five elaborated standards which specify what students should be able to do to demonstrate their understanding of the causes of the American Revolution. Each elaborated standard illustrates the integration of historical thinking and understanding by marrying a particular thinking skill (e.g., comparing arguments) to a specific historical understanding (e.g., traditional rights of English people). One thinking skill appears highlighted in brackets following each statement. The particular thinking skill was selected to serve as an example of the integration of historical thinking and historical understanding, and it is by no means the only one that can be employed. In fact, the standards encourage teachers to approach content through a wide variety of thinking skills.

Finally, each elaborated standard is coded to indicate in which grades the standard can appropriately be developed.

5-12 indicates the standard is appropriate for grades 5-6, as well as for all higher levels, from grades 7-8 through grades 9-12.

7-12 indicates the standard is appropriate for grades 7-8 through grades 9-12.

9-12 indicates the standard is best reserved for students in their high school years, grades 9-12.

However, the order in which the elaborated standards are presented is driven by the logical unfolding of the particular topic rather than by grade level.

FIGURE 1: [See book.] Integrating Historical Thinking and Historical Understanding Era 3, Standard 1, U.S. History

FIGURE 2:[See book.] Elements of a History Standard