Teachers taking the ball-of-string approach present history as a string of information that is unraveled throughout the course. A U.S. history teacher might, for example, begin at 1492 by unraveling a list of names, terms, and dates about the European exploration of the Americas and the establishment of colonies. When finished with that unit of study, the teacher will unravel a string of information about the thirteen British colonies and the events that led to the American Revolution. The American Revolution would then be followed by information about the Articles of Confederation and the writing of the U.S. Constitution. And so on …
By the end of the course students will have been exposed to a considerable amount of historical information and will have memorized what they can from the textbook and class lectures. In many cases, students explore few, if any, interpretations of history beyond what the textbook or the teacher provides. With the ball-of-string approach, students will leave a history class knowing the historical information they can remember.
A second way of teaching history is to take the posthole approach and present history as a series of topics or key concepts that are explored in depth. Rather than presenting the George Washington administration as a list of names, terms, and dates that need to be defined and memorized, a teacher taking the posthole approach would focus on a selected topic, such as the formation of political parties during Washington's presidency, and then explore that topic in depth.
|"Knowledge and wisdom are down here somewhere."|
In the end, the posthole approach should lead to a more sophisticated understanding of the formation of political parties in the 1790s, as well as provide a foundation for understanding the significance of political parties throughout all of U.S. history. Rather than leaving class having simply memorized a string of information, students will have spent time using that information to develop analytical and historical thinking skills. Students will have been given an opportunity to sharpen those skills through the examination of primary and secondary source documents. Students will have also developed their writing skills by providing a written defense of the analytical conclusions they reached after a rigorous examination of the documents they examined.
The posthole approach takes time, but so does the ball-of-string approach. The difference can be found in looking at what each approach brings about. Students leave the ball-of-string approach knowing much historical information that might easily be forgotten after they leave the course. Students should leave the posthole approach, however, having spent enough time developing their thinking and writing skills that those skills will stay with them forever. They should have also learned enough information about the key concepts of history that they are able to understand the bigger picture of the course of human events rather simply knowing a list of minutiae. Students should also be less likely to forget those key concepts because they have explored them in depth.
If taking the posthole approach and asking students to examine Hamilton, Jefferson, and the formation of political parties in depth requires so much class time that the teacher is forced to skip some information in the textbook, so be it. If the teacher does not have enough time to cover the Residence Act of 1790, students will be okay not knowing that information. A lot of smart, well-educated, successful people have gone far in their academic studies and then led perfectly happy, fulfilled lives knowing nothing about the Residence Act of 1790. Teachers will not be sacrificing their students' future if they don't teach it. On the other hand, students will probably not go far in academics without the ability to read, write, and think at the highest levels, and those skills can best be developed by taking the posthole approach to teaching history.
I once told a man at a pub in Wansford, England, that I taught United States history. Without skipping a beat, he dismissively asked me, “What bloody history?” I can understand an Englishman asking such a question. After all, a 1000-year-old Anglican cathedral stood only a few miles away from where we sat. Compared to many other parts of the world, the United States is a low mileage nation regarding the years it has racked up.
I will say, however, that the historical topic does not matter as much as the need to teach students to thinking historically. It should make little difference whether students are studying American, European, or Asian history, or whether they are studying information from 25 years ago or 2500 years ago. No matter what historical information the curriculum requires, history students should be given an opportunity to develop their thinking and writing skills at the highest levels, skills that will help them in any field of study. The posthole approach is the best way to help students achieve that goal.