In a recent post in this blog, I wrote about how curriculum planning is a team sport. Developing the Four Question Method has been the ultimate curriculum planning project, and it is certainly a team sport. Gary and I argue constantly about how to teach history to young people, and our arguments are a key part of what had led us to these Four Questions and the method we’re still building around them. The other key parts are actually teaching and observing teachers (we like to say that we didn’t invent this idea, we observed it). Teaching and observing provide real-world data and keep us grounded, and the arguments make our ideas better and more clear.

A few weeks ago Gary wrote a blog post about the two types of stories we tell when we teach history, and after it was up on the web we argued about it. He called the two story types “cause-and-effect stories” and “continuity and change stories.” I didn’t like those names. I argued that every story we tell in history class contains cause and effect and describes continuity and change, so these labels don’t help us to distinguish stories from each other. By the end of the argument (about an hour of conversation, spread out over several days), we had come up with names that we think better describe these two story types, and a working hypothesis about what makes them different.

Sequential Narratives

Instead of “cause-and-effect-stories” we’re now calling them “sequential narratives.” Sequential narratives are chains of events that have clear cause-and-effect relationships, and culminate in something new and notable in the world. Let’s take the American Revolution as an example. In 1763, the thirteen American colonies were happy and loyal members of the British Empire. In 1776 the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, and seven years after that Britain acknowledged that independence in the Treaty of Paris. The story of how we got from colonies to independent nation reads like a break-up narrative that our students might tell: “So first he he said, and then she said, and then that made him even madder, so he goes…” If you’ve been to one of our workshops you know that we start the unit planning process by making a six-box storyboard that forces us to select the key elements of the story and put them into “chapters,” one chapter per box. In sequential narratives those chapters are almost always strictly chronological: the events of each box directly precede the events of the next one. The boxes don’t need to cover the same period of time — for example, in this American Revolution storyboard the Stamp Act crisis gets a box all to itself — but the boxes go in order and the relationships between them are causal. As Gary noted in his original post, these kinds of stories are conceptually easy to tell. The challenge for teachers is to “prune the story down to its core essentials” so that students can access it without being overwhelmed with facts and details.

Episodic Narratives

We’re now calling the other type of stories “episodic narratives.” Episodic narratives are different from sequential narratives. They are broader, in both time and space, and describe large overall changes, rather and recounting a strictly causal narrative. As Gary noted, these stories are less focused on describing precisely how something changed; instead they describe broad and significant changes over time, illustrating how much something has changed. The Industrial Revolution unit I’ve taught for the last few years is a good example of an episodic narrative.The narrative covers a nearly two hundred year period, from 1700 to 1890. Box number two focuses on the textile industry in Great Britain, but box number three is a general description of the spread of industrialization. Both those boxes have wide date ranges: “1700s” and “1800s.” Chronology is violated directly in box number four, “Responses” [to industrialization], since Adam Smith’s work actually preceded the industrial revolution. Smith’s ideas were used by nineteenth century thinkers to justify laissez-faire policies, but he was not in fact responding to industrialization. This box title is more accurately applied to Karl Marx, who was, but the fact that we’re putting both these authors in the same box is an indication that we’re telling a different kind of story than the one we told with the American Revolution. Box number five is broad is both time and space, describing reforms carried out by different means (labor unions, legislation) and in different places (Britain and the European continent). The causal links between these six boxes are not nearly so tight and clear as in a sequential narrative, and in some cases may not exist at all. It would be a stretch to say that Smith and Marx caused Parliament to pass the factory acts, for example.

Planning with both types of narratives requires teachers to select the key elements in the story and to leave lots of things out. But with episodic narratives the challenge is somewhat different, because there are so many possible specific cases that illustrate the changes we’re studying that it can be harder to decide what to leave out. Some readers might notice that although my industrial revolution storyboard ends in 1890, it makes no mention of the “second industrial revolution.” And I mostly ignore industrialization outside of Britain, except for a brief mention of German state socialism in box number five. The storyboard is an especially helpful limiting tool for episodic narratives, because it forces us to choose our episodes thoughtfully, and helps us to avoid forcing an episodic story to become an overcrowded and inaccurate sequential one. If we know we’re writing an episodic narrative, the pressure to include anything and everything that might be relevant to the story falls away.

Fifty Years?

Having argued our way to new names for the two kinds of stories, Gary and I are now arguing about a working hypothesis about what might indicate to teachers that they are best served by explicitly choosing one or the other. I’ve suggested that a fifty year span between the setting and outcome may be the breakpoint between sequential and episodic stories. Shorter than that and you’re probably teaching a sequential narrative: think about units on the world wars, or the new deal. Fifty years or longer and you’re probably teaching an episodic narrative: think about units on the rise of modern China, or the spread of Islam.

Of course there may be a spatial variable as well, and maybe the fifty years idea is just wrong and there’s some better way to distinguish between these story types. Since this post was drafted, Gary and I have had even more productive argument about it — watch this space for further developments!