Fred Zilian


When teaching history, it is very easy to get caught up and lost in all the details of a particular lesson. I am especially drawn to political, diplomatic, and military history and have found myself spending far too much time in my Western Civilization courses on the fine points of the diplomatic maneuverings of the Congress of Vienna or the tactical skill of Hannibal during the Second Punic War. So, to ensure that my students have the big picture, I do the following:

  1. At the outset of the course, I ensure that they understand the critical overarching themes and questions of the course.
  2. At the start of each lesson, I indicate which of these are present in the day's lesson.
  3. And finally, I require each student to have a "BIG IDEAS BOX."

At the beginning of all my history courses, I present my overarching themes, including the types of history that we will be studying, such as political, economic, social, cultural, military, technological, religious, and intellectual history. In addition to these themes, I also indicate that we will be using our author's (Jackson Spielvogel) expanded definition of "civilization" in which he specifies the six themes that all civilizations tend to share: urban focus, a distinct religious structure, new political and military structures, a new social structure, the development of writing, and new forms of significant artistic and intellectual activity.

Second, I introduce the two overarching questions which a critical mind should have at the ready, no matter what type of history, no matter what level of history: the "Why" question and the "So what?" question. The first helps us to plunge deeper in the historical matter beyond the who, what, where, and when to deeper levels of causal analysis, an important skill for all students of history to develop. I have found the more the students understand causality, the more interesting they find history. The second question forces us to demand and discover the significance or consequences of some historical person, event, battle, war, movement, legislation, revolution, and so on.

Finally, I require all students to designate—on a piece of notebook paper or in a digital document—a "BIG IDEAS BOX." As we come across the ideas and concepts of Western Civilization which have had great and long-lasting significance, they are required to "place these in the box." In Ancient Western Civilization, the first one we designate is the essence of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution when humans moved from hunter-gathering to systematic farming and the domestication of animals. Whenever possible, I try to encapsulate the idea in a word or phrase. With this first one, I summarize it by the word "STAY." To help to reinforce the concept I play the eponymous rock 'n' roll song. This shifting of teaching mediums to aural seems to bring good results while allowing us to have a bit of fun. (On a really good day, several students will rise from their desks and dance!) At the outset of the next lesson, I review the big ideas from the previous lesson or chapter.

In truth, the box is not simply for big ideas but also for essential questions—questions which have great significance and no correct answers. Our first such question comes with the Ancient Greeks on the lesson covering the three great philosophers. When we discuss Plato's Allegory of the Cave, we end with the essential question: What is really real? When I teach U.S. history the first of these questions comes with the American Revolution: When is a person justified in crossing the threshold from peaceful to violent means? My Modern Western Civilization course might provide these examples: How much of a role should government play in a country's economy? In a country's society?

One aspect of these boxes I explain is that these big ideas do not always operate in harmony. As a course progresses, we discover conflicts between the ideas. In several of my history courses, the most persistent conflict appears between the idea of the inequality of human beings and the idea of their equality, enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but with its roots in the big idea of one God. This can be unsettling for students, which is not only exactly what I wish to accomplish, but also a great vehicle for helping them to see the excitement and challenge of studying history.

Fred Zilian, PhD, teaches history and political science at Portsmouth Abbey School and Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. He writes a monthly column on the Civil War for the Newport Daily News. He is also an educational consultant with Catholic School Management and a presenter/impersonator of Abraham Lincoln. Check out Zilian's education blog and historical, political, and social commentary blog. Connect with him by e-mail at

Comments (1)

Nicole Milici

May 31, 2013

Nice article…thank you for sharing!

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