Teaching Non-Linear History with Technology


Arnold Toynbee, the British historian noted for his comparative histories of world civilizations, eloquently condemned his colleagues for presenting the past as “one damn thing after the other.”  He lamented linear accounts of history because of their implicit determinism as well as their limited scope (i.e. often promoting the story of a particular nation-state).  Historians teaching primary, secondary and even post-secondary students might wonder what Toynbee would say if he witnessed the history being taught in their classrooms.  How many lessons flow seamlessly from “thing” to “thing” only to realize how many other “damn things” are being left out for the sake of expediency?  Yet, it seems only natural to understand, and to teach, history in this linear manner.

Linear Lessons and the Challenges for History Teachers

Teachers are confronted with certain constraints implicit in a school year that encourage linear models of historical study.  If the past is broad, the school year is not.  How does an eighth grade teacher of medieval history cover all that is the Middle Ages in a “year” that consists of eight months?   Or in a class that consists of one hour in an eight hour “day.”  Inevitably, the grand narrative of the Middle Ages must be laid out on the table like a side of beef, key figures and events must be sectioned off, broad categories are carved into units that can be further broken down into daily lesson-plans.  The product is a neatly packaged past, presented in bite-sized portions for manageable test taking (and grading), and available for passive consumption.

Certainly, there are merits to a linear historical account.  A field that concerns not only space, but time, requires students to cultivate an accurate sense of what “thing” came before (or after) another.  I imagine Julius Caesar’s overthrow of Zela would have seemed absurd to the Senate had he returned and declared, “I conquered, I saw, I came!”   They might have assassinated him sooner.  The chronological ordering of “Veni, Vidi, Vici” is more than catchy rhetoric.  It provides a linear structure to his conquest that gives it coherence.

Yet, an approach to teaching history that packages critical events and individuals into a single linear account may unintentionally solidify an uncritical view of the past by overlooking the tangential factors also at work throughout history.  Considering Julius Caesar and Zela once more, the student might wonder what the inhabitants of Zela thought they saw coming, or what type of culture Caesar conquered.  Historians are constantly challenged to push their students to engage with such overlooked, or marginal, perspectives, but this requires deviation from the central narrative; that is, a “non-linear” approach to the past.

Digital Media:  Lessons from the Pioneers of the Digital Age

The digital age is characterized by an abundance of information being continually processed and shared between vast networks of machines and individuals.  This novel reality overwhelms many humanists who are in the business of finding meaning in the flood of information before drowning in it.  The sense of drowning might explain their opposition to digital media.  With their last few breaths we can hear them quote T.S. Elliot:

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge.
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information.”
Choruses from the Rock 

But is such opposition warranted?  Reading Web Dragons, what struck me in this history of the Internet, was that the pioneers of the digital age saw themselves as devising techniques to facilitate, not stagnate, the age-old quest for wisdom and truth.  Doug Englebart (pioneer of user-friendliness), Ted Nelson (pioneer of hypertext), and Tim Berners-Lee (pioneer of the World Wide Web) all operated on the premise that computers were tools of higher communication, augmenting (not replacing) the human intellect.  Furthermore, they all shared a belief that information could be conceived “as a network of relations in which all concepts could be reciprocally intertwined” (Web Dragons,17).

Information Networks Promote Non-Linear Thinking

Teachers of history who want students to actively engage the past by making links between events should consider that the success of digital media is because of this exact ability.  In their work on Digital History, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosezweig note that digital media is “hyper-textual” by nature which promotes an “ease of moving through narratives or data in undirected and multiple ways …[that] fractures and de-centers traditional master narratives.”  Although digital media facilitates non-linearity, the objective is for teachers AND students to re-think how they learn history.  And teachers are not so naive as to overlook the fact that most students “learning” history online do not grasp this potential.

Obstacles or Tools for Research?

Online research for most students typically involves little more than a key word search in Google followed by a key fact search in Wikipedia.  It is easy to vilify the impact of Google and Wikipedia on learning.  Yet, as Roy Rosezweig noted, teachers might consider paying attention to Wikipedia when so many of their students already do.  The challenge is that many students feel “finished” with research after using these tools and this demands that teachers step in and train students to use Google and Wikipedia in ways that promote further inquiry.  
In the spirit of “showing” rather than “telling” this point is best illustrated (and concluded) through a brief lesson plan that puts into practice the principles of non-linearity and digital media in the classroom.

The Huns:  How Google and Wikipedia Can Help History Teachers?

Lesson Objectives

In this unit students will:

  • Explore the Empire of the Huns in the Middle Ages
  • Explore connections between the Huns and Rome and China in the 3rd to 5th centuries
  • Explore the historical impact of technology on civilizations
  • Research using Google and Wikipedia
  • Reflect on questions asked and answers found
  • Reflect on any changes of opinions found between scholars


  • Present your students with two images:  one is the Great Wall of China, and the other is the famous painting of the Fall of Rome.  Between the two images place a common horse stirrup (or an image if you cannot raid a barn before class).  Have the students collaborate briefly and share their thoughts on the images.
  • Lead students to understand that one image involves the construction of a wall in the East (China), and that the other involves the destruction of a wall (or many walls) in the West (the Roman Empire)
  • Have a volunteer explain the horse stirrup to any who might not be familiar.
  • Explain to your class that the stirrup is responsible for the events in both pictures.  It is their mission to explain how.

  • Using Google and Wikipedia find connections between the stirrup and the two images.
  • In notebooks create a question log:  this tracks down all the questions you asked, and entered into the search engine.
  • In notebooks create an answers log:  this tracks down all the answers you found, AND highlights any different answers to the same questions you found.  (Encourage students to look at the history of the Wikipedia page to see where edits were made)
  • On a separate piece of paper construct a narrative that communicates to the teacher the connections between the stirrup and the two images.


Student grades for this project are broken into thirds:

1/3 – Questions
1/3 – Answers
1/3 – Final Narrative

Narratives should  include:  The military advantage of the stirrup, mastered by the Huns in the 3rd to 5th centuries.  The Hun army pushed East forcing the Chinese emperor to construct the Great Wall of China.  As a result, the Huns moved west forcing Germanic peoples to flood into a weakened Rome, contributing to its downfall.


The importance of this lesson is the equal weight given to questions, answers and the students’ final product.  Doing this, puts ownership on the students to explore answers to their own questions, (albeit, guided by the teacher to a specific issue), getting back to the roots of historical study.

To the Ancient Greeks, the word historia meant “learning or knowing by inquiry, record or narrative.”  A historian was characterized by a depth of inquiry not a breadth of factual or sequential information.  While search engines such as Google use complex algorithms to locate an abundance of information unimaginable to scholars and online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia provide an abundance of factual detail on most historical inquiries, teachers would do well to remember that these engines and encyclopedias are fueled by the questions of individuals.  Google searchers often do not fault the algorithm for finding useless material, they fault their choice of words; that is, their questions.  This is a good thing.  Confronting the questions we ask is taking active ownership in the process of learning.

The only way to avoid a “one damn thing after another” lesson plan is to curtail that mindset of history.  Digital media, used and understood properly, might assist teachers in doing just that.


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