Civic Idea of the Day: A Traceback Curriculum

One of the most important ideas to show kids is this: “what exists in society today only exists because somebody decided to make it happen. Everything has an origin; everything that is in society today was once something else (or nothing) until someone decided to make it what it is today… and thus, today, you can play a part in the origin of new things!”

Kindergarten, flip flops, the newsticker at the bottom of certain TV channels, the Dollar Menu, the STOP sign, the seventh inning stretch, prom, the greenspaces near highways, and the weekend — as well as everything else in society! — were conceived, realized, developed and expanded by individuals and groups who were no different than themselves.

TracebackSo here’s an idea for history education:

(1) have kids go around and make a list of things in their own lives and communities: concrete things, abstract things, products, institutions, events, ideas, cultural artifacts, places and more (the pencil, the school’s lunch policy, the song “Happy Birthday”, the no skateboarding policies at the mall… anything that affects them!);

(2) Narrow the list to a manageable size;

(3) Have the kids start tracing things on the list back through history… all the way to the original creative thought or set of thoughts;

(4) Have the kids share the story of the thing and the individuals, groups, institutions, and ideas that led to it being what it is today with each other; and, excitedly,

(5) Have the kids imagine the thing into the future, answering “Do you like the thing as it is? Is it good or does it need to be changed? What ideas do you have for it?”.

This “trace back and imagine forward” approach is assuredly a more inspirational use of history for kids than the standard “this happened, then this happened, then this powerful guy did this, then this happened, then this happened…” approach to history education.

It makes history seem consequential, it makes the present world become more alive, and inspires creativity and purpose for the future. Try it out and let us know how it goes!