The Value of AP World History

“Wait.  So, like, all of this is going to be on the test?” He asked this question and held up a weighty stack of papers.  It’s a couple days before the AP World History exam, and for many of my students it’s their first experience with an exam that covers a full year’s worth of skills and content.  Their intense level of denial rapidly vanishes into anxiety and stress.

AP World History (APWH) covers the origins of human beings through modern issues; across the whole world.  It is clearly an impossible task to actually cover the history of the entire world in a single course.  Even broad survey courses in college focus on “Modern European History” or “Japan: Prehistory to 1868.”  The idea of a holistic world history course is frankly somewhat strange if your goal is complete content coverage.  It would be inconceivable.

So if the goal is not to “teach kids the history of the world,” then what exactly is the point of APWH?

The purpose is two-fold.  The first is to provide an entry point into the structure and rigor of AP and/or IB classes.  The second purpose is that APWH serves to build students’ skills in analytical reasoning, argumentation, and individual accountability.

Don’t get me wrong, APWH covers a ton of historical content.  This survey of history, however, is so incredibly shallow that the skills taught in the course far outweigh the content.  The historical content portion of my mission is to expose students to ideas and historical events.  Developing a deep understanding of the all the possible content is not a reasonable expectation for the course.  The content is, in practice, a hook for teaching the skills.

AP and IB exams are, generally, the first time students are held accountable for knowing a course cover to cover.  .  In fact, the majority of classes at the school in which I teach no longer give cumulative finals at semester’s end.  .  As such APWH calls on students to learn the skill of studying and reviewing for a massive exam. This is new to most high school students, but will be required for post-secondary education.  The exam is a stretch for many students, and they have to be specifically taught how to process all the content they are exposed to.

More importantly, however, is the development of individual responsibility and accountability that APWH builds.  Due to the massive content load and the very specific writing skills needed for APWH, it is a simple truth that class time is insufficient.  As such, students are responsible for learning significant content on their own as homework.  Students get context and background from the text, and class time is used to work on understanding the most difficult concepts and developing writing and argumentation skills.

This need to learn concepts and content without a teacher’s explanation is where students struggle the most.  They’ve never had to do it, and many balk declaring it “unfair” that they’re tested and quizzed on material we will never cover in class.  While the process is difficult, the students who adapt and integrate the ability to learn on their own get the most value from the course.  By the end of the course, they can read a historical text, and can contextualize it within the broader scope of history.

The college credit available for scoring well on an AP exam is nice.  The fact that college admissions programs look positively on a transcript full of AP and IB courses is undeniable.  The real value, however, comes from the development of strong academic independence.  Other classes are simply not forced to make students work in a truly independent way, and so many teachers (full of good intentions) scale back the academic intensity of the class in order to provide more opportunities for success by struggling students.  AP and IB classes, with their external level of accountability, shift the responsibility for success, from the teacher, to the students.  This shift is a rude awakening for some, but the long-term benefits of developing academic independence far outweigh the short-term difficulty and stress of the AP course.

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