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. These included self-determination and an independent Polish state.

The war- weary French wanted to prevent Germany from ever waging war again. Along with de-militarizing Germany and occupying the Rhineland, the French attempted to force Germany to pay essentially un-payable war reparations. The result was the devastation of the German economy, mass starvation, and the disintegration of the Weimar Republic. These along with Germany's desire for revenge paved the way for Adolf Hitler's rise to power and an even greater war in 1939.

History-Social Science Standards

The California standards are one example of a state's standards where there is an overlap of historical content and a potential connection to government and economics concepts. Although the wording of a standard may not appear to be an exact fit, closer examination of the classroom activities reveals the underlying application of the essential content standards.

World History 10.6.1. Analyze the aims and negotiating roles of world leaders, the terms and influence of the Treaty of Versailles and Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, and the causes and effects of the United States' rejection of the League of Nations on world politics.

U.S. History 11.4.6. Trace the declining role of Great Britain and the expanding role of the United States in world affairs after World War I.

Government 12.4 Analyze the unique roles and responsibilities of the three branches of government as established by the US Constitution.

Government 12.6 Students evaluate issues regarding campaigns for national, state, and local elective offices.

Economics 12.1 Students understand common economic terms and concepts and economic reasoning.

Economics 12.6 Students analyze issues of international trade and explain how the US economy affects, and is affected by economic forces beyond the United States' borders.

Sample Essential Question

This is an example of an over-arching question that can guide student study in any of these four course areas. The essential question and the subsequent subject-specific questions can also be a model for students to create their own questions.

Was the Treaty of Versailles a plan for enduring peace or enduring political, economic, and social conflict?

Sample of Subject-Specific Questions

Sample of Key Terms

These are just some of the terms students may encounter in a variety of textual materials. It is important to understand both the meaning of these terms and their historical context.

Sample Table of Historical Connections to the Treaty of Versailles

These examples help illustrate some of the historical connections that history, government, and economics students can make when applying a "linking" event like the Treaty of Versailles.

Sample Historical Comparisons

Seeing similarities and differences help students evaluate the significance of historical events. These examples represent events useful for drawing parallels or making comparisons with the Treaty of Versailles.

Munich Pact, Camp David Accords, Oslo Peace Agreement, Marshall Plan, NAFTA, Cold War, Containment policy, Berlin Airlift, Korean armistice, SALT II, Bretton-Woods, Kyoto Protocol

Sample Uses Applying Background Knowledge of the Treaty of Versailles in an American Government Course

The Treaty of Versailles is an excellent example of using a familiar historical event to reinforce the learning of new content. In the case of an American Government course, teaching students about the importance of elections and checks and balances can be strengthened if students can apply historically significant examples.

* The effect of mid-term Congressional elections on Presidential policy goals

* The Democratic Party lost control of both houses of Congress in the November 1918 mid-term elections despite President's Wilson's efforts.

* Analyze the 1918 election results.

* Compare and contrast this to other mid-term elections when the President's party lost their majority in Congress.

*1946, 1954, 1994, and 2006.

* Develop a hypothesis about the factors that may affect the majority party's loss of control of Congress.

* Checks and Balances in the making of foreign policy

* The president's power to make treaties and the Senate's power to ratify or reject treaties with only one-third plus one vote

* The US Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.

* Compare and contrast this to other instances of the Senate's rejection of a treaty negotiated by the President or the President's withdrawal of a treaty

* In 1979, President Carter signed the SALT II treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons. He withdrew the treaty after the Iranian students took Americans hostage in Tehran and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

* In 1999, during the Clinton Administration, the Republican Senate rejected a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons testing.

* Define the term, executive agreement and describe the differences between an executive agreement and a treaty.

* Noting that since 1952, the US has 14 treaties and 29 1 executive agreements.

* The students can use their historical knowledge to speculate as to whether or not President Wilson could have avoided Senate rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and simply signed an executive agreement.

* Since 1789, the Senate has only rejected twenty-one treaties.

* Develop a hypothesis about the factors influencing the President achieving ratification of a treaty.

Sample Uses Applying Background Knowledge of the Treaty of Versailles in an Economics Course

Taking advantage of background historical knowledge can increase student interest in economic concepts.

* Industrialization

* A comparison of the pre- World War I industrial output of Germany, Japan, and the US with Great Britain and France.

* The effect of the Treaty of Versailles on the German economy

* Search for possible evidence while considering whether or not the economic effects of the Treaty contributed to Hitler's rise to power

* Economic growth and development

* Analyze the effect of reparations payments on the ability of Germany's economy to recover after WWI.

* Economic policymaking

* Gather evidence about the economic conditions in Europe following World War I through the depression of the I930's.

* Analyze what role the Treaty may have had on European economies had it been implemented in accordance with President Wilson's ideas.

Working with Text

Teachers must apply sound principles of learning in creating the setting necessary for all students to accomplish the challenges presented to them. The classroom must be a socially supportive environment in which structured student-to-student conversation strongly reinforces course content. Most of what is studied in the social sciences is done by reading, not just textbooks, but also primary and secondary documents. Frequently, the "artifacts" of the social scientist are discovered in the words he or she reads. The student in the social science class must be able to understand what he or she is reading, not only on the surface of the text, but be able to critically consider what secrets, motivations, agendas, and biases lies beneath the literal text. In order to do this, students need to learn, practice, and apply research-proven content literacy strategies.


Political actors may shape the course of history, but teachers shape the course of history for their students. While student participation is critical to the success of a course, teacher preparation is critical to the success of the student, both in acquiring knowledge and skills. Addressing the instructional relationship between the history, government, and economics takes intradepartmental communication and collaboration. While state content standards emphasize the links between the studies of history, government, and economics, teachers do not necessarily talk to their department colleagues about what is going on in their classrooms.

Vertical alignment of the curriculum and skill development makes it easier for the teachers as well as the students to build upon previous learning. The use of curriculum mapping can be an extremely useful to facilitate teacher reflection, horizontal collaboration among teachers teaching the same subjects, and the vertical conversation necessary to create a cohesive curriculum. Teacher time spent in conversation with colleagues should include discussion of:

* Readings used

* Assessments

* Content literacy strategies practiced

* Material covered

* how much time is spent on particular subjects

* Unnecessary repetition of material

* Curricular gaps between courses

* where and what a student leaving a course has studied

In order to leverage student historical understanding from earlier courses, teachers need to work together. The Treaty of Versailles is only one example of many familiar historic "moments" to use for deepening new learning. Others include the Declaration of Independence, Manifest Destiny, the Stock Market Crash, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Our goal as social studies teachers is to help equip students to develop, refine, and express their own ideas. "Ideas shape the course of history." Teachers shape the creators of those ideas.



Brezina, Corona. The Treaty of Versailles, 1 9 1 9: A Primary Source Examination Of The Treaty That Ended World War I, New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2005.

Henig, Ruth. Versailles and After: 1919-1933 (Lancaster Pamphlets), London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1984.

Keynes, John Maynard. The Economic Consequences of Peace, London: Macmillan and Co., 1920

Keynes, John Maynard. Essays in Persuasion, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1963

Macmillan, Margaret. Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, New York: Random House, 2002.


The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project Human Rights Timeline: From the Treaty of Versailles to the Formation of the United Nations http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/ humanrights/timeline/timeline5.cfm

First World War.Com Primary Documents http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/] 9 1 9.htm

From Versailles to NATO: 1918-1949 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/wwii/wwiichro.htm

A German View of the Treaty of Versailles http://web.jjay. cuny.edu/~jobrien/reference/ob94.html

Germany 1918-1 939 The problems of the Weimar Republic http://www.redruth.comwall.sch.uk/content/departments/ history /gcse/germany /Germany 1918-1 939.htm

The Peace Treaty of Versailles: June 28, 1919 http://net.lib.byu.edu/~rdh7/wwi/versailles.html

President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points of January 8, 1918 http://www.animatedatlas.com/wwl/fourteenpoints. html

President Woodrow Wilson's War Message to Congress of April 2, 1917 http://www.animatedatlas.com/wwl/ warmessage.html

Pyne , John and Gloria Sesso. Lessons Plans and Primary Documents Organization of American Historians: Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. Ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, Reprinted from the OAH Magazine of History 9 (Spring 1995). ISSN 0882-228X Copyright (c) 1995. http://www.oah.org/pubs/magazine/standards/ pyne-sesso3.html

Schoenherr, Steven E. University of San Diego. The Versailles Treaty of June 28, 1919. The text of the Treaty, suggested readings, maps, charts, photos, cartoons, and other links http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/text/ versaillestreaty /vercontents.html

US Peace Treaty with Germany http://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/US_Peace_Treaty_with_ Germany

Versailles and German Expectations http://www.colby.edu/personal/r/rmscheck/GermanyDl. html

The World War One Document Archive http://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/Main_Page

[Author Affiliation]


Jennifer R. Donnelly & Gregory V. Gray

Jennifer Donnelly teaches World History and US History at Northwood High School, Irvine, California. She has Bachelor's degree in history from the University of California, Davis that included study in London. She also has a Master's degree in Education from the University of California, Irvine.

Gregory Gray teaches Advanced Placement American Government and Political Economy at Irvine High School, Irvine, California. He has given presentations in instructional strategies at the National Educational Computing Conference and at the Ed-Media World Conference. He has a MA in political science from California State University, Long Beach.

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


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