History Repeats Itself in the Classroom, Too! Using Prior Learning to Enrich New Content: The Treaty of Versailles as One Model

By Donnelly, Jennifer R.; Gray, Gregory V. | Social Studies Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

History Repeats Itself in the Classroom, Too! Using Prior Learning to Enrich New Content: The Treaty of Versailles as One Model


Donnelly, Jennifer R., Gray, Gregory V., Social Studies Review


Ideas shape the course of history.

- John Maynard Keynes

Good history teachers know their goal is to develop their students' historical skill sets as well as their knowledge base. Good government and economics teachers know this as well. The exciting classroom is the one in which students act as historians, political scientists, and economists instead of content sponges. However, good social studies teachers know that their students are not going to acquire these intellectual tools through osmosis. Simply placing in front of them "exciting" materials, like primary documents, interactive multi-media, and cool websites, and watching the magic happen is not going to produce the desired effect. It is not magic but rather the sequence of modeling, teacher-student conversation, and student-student conversation that produces student work consistent with that of historians, political scientists, and economists. Without this scaffolding, strong students may "get it," but the not-so-strong students will silently struggle, leaving the teacher to blame their "failure" on the lack of motivation or discipline.

State Social Science or Social Studies standards generally emphasize historical connections. However, they do not address the instructional relationship between the history, government, and economics. Many events are repeated; however, the standards do not suggest different ways of teaching the same topic in greater depth for the subsequent grade levels. For example, students may briefly study the Treaty of Versailles in 7th grade World History and encounter it again in both high world history and US history courses. The Treaty of Versailles is typically neglected in government and economics courses, even though it could serve as an enlightening case study.

How can teachers take advantage of multiple encounters with historic events to reinforce concepts in government and economics? By using familiar historic events, teachers can activate students' background knowledge and deepen understanding of new concepts in the non-history subject areas. The purpose of this article is to illustrate the linearity of history and its practicality, using a significant event, throughout the social studies curriculum.

The Treaty of Versailles is one of those historic events that social studies teachers can use to show a "before, during, and after" relationship. The Treaty represents a critical junction in history. Coupled to it are smaller, but still historically significant events. Students are not just focusing on the Treaty as a separate unit, they are examining the years leading up to and beyond the treaty to see the bigger picture. The central position occupied by the Treaty can be examined in high school World History and US History, but also in American Government and Economics. Teachers in those subjects can use the Treaty in variety of ways to enhance their curricula. The benefit of this is that students are using a familiar historical event to deepen their understanding of a topic in American Government or Economics.

Historical Background to the Treaty of Versailles

At the end of WWI, the leaders of England, France, Italy, and the United States (Allied Powers), met to discuss a peace settlement with the defeated German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires (Central Powers). Negotiations were held in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. The treaty was signed June 28, 1919, leaving Germany devastated and the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. Austria, who started the war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, suffered far less than Germany. The Germans were forced to accept the war guilt-clause, which required them to assume responsibility for the war and bear the full financial burden.

President Wilson proposed the League of Nations, as part of the Treaty of Versailles. However, Senate rejection of the treaty blocked US participation. Despite this, some of Wilson's Fourteen Points were accepted by England, France, and Italy in the design of post-war Europe. …

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