homeschooling history

Homeschooling History: The Four-Year Cycle Revised

Rethinking the Four-Year History Cycle

There is a popular historical template for homeschooling that breaks history up into a four year cycle. This applies to high school mainly, but you’ll find variations of it in middle school as well. The template goes something like this:

Year 1: Ancient
Year 2: Medieval
Year 3: Modern European
Year 4: U.S. History

Some of you undoubtedly use a variation of this structure. It’s very popular. I’ve used it many times. And there’s nothing wrong with this structure, especially for Middle School or younger grades. It is time-tested; my own Story of Civilization textbooks were written to accommodate this very template. When kids are younger, they can get by with a very broad brush approach to history. However, I think we need to give this structure some thought when it comes to high school because, truth be told, it doesn’t accommodate modern history very well. In this article, I’d like to point out some issues with the four-year history cycle and suggest rethinking how we structure our history studies.

The Modern History Time Crunch

Year 1 and Year 2 for ancient and medieval are fine. You can get a solid education in ancient and medieval in two years. The problem is really with Year 4, U.S. History, because it is the only place we are devoting an entire year to the history of a single country. Now, for those of us in the United States, this makes sense because it is our country, and that’s important. However, this means that everything else that is not U.S. history–that is, everything else in the world from the end of the Middle Ages to today–needs to be stuffed into Year 3. Most medieval studies lessons will end around the Renaissance, so a modern European history year typically starts around the Reformation and goes from there.

Now think about all that needs to be covered in Year 3:

  • The Reformation & Counter-Reformation
  • The Age of the Religious Wars
  • The Age of Exploration and Discovery of the New World
  • The Enlightenment
  • The French Revolution
  • The Napoleonic Wars
  • The Age of European Liberalism
  • Colonialism and Imperialism
  • The Unifications of Germany and Italy
  • World War I
  • The Russian Revolution
  • The Rise of Communism
  • The Rise of Fascism and National Socialism
  • World War II
  • The Cold War and the Nuclear Age
  • The Collapse of the Soviet Union & Reunification of Germany
  • The Wars in the Balkans
  • The Creation of the E.U.
  • The Global War on Terror

A Global Approach

That is a lot of content to shoehorn into Year 3. And it leaves us with the strange situation of Martin Luther being taught in the same year as Osama bin Laden. And, of course, this is only considering European history, so we’re not even considering if you want to follow a more global approach, which would require even more content. This also doesn’t consider any specific Catholic content we want to work into our modern history studies, like learning about modern saints, the Second Vatican Council, or the pontificate of John Paul II.

The fact is, there’s not enough time to cover all this material. This is why, 99% of the time, you will not get through it all–at least not if you’re hoping to go at a reasonable pace. Most parents who run out of time covering a historical epoch do so specifically when it comes to modern history. I used to teach Middle School history at a co-op in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the high school history teacher would try to get all this content into his year, and I would always look at him and think, “He’s not gonna make it.” And he never did. Not once. He would get to Napoleon by April and then rush to cover two centuries in a few weeks after Easter break. I don’t think he ever made it to 1900, let alone to our own day.

Tweaking the Four-Year Cycle

You have likely experienced something like this as well. The fact is, the four-year cycle simply doesn’t give enough time to get through modern history. There’s too much content to cover, and it doesn’t really go together thematically–Martin Luther and Osama bin Laden don’t belong in the same course. 

If you have ever run out of time before you can get to modern history, it’s likely because of the four-year cycle (Ancient, Medieval, Modern, U.S.) But one year simply isn’t enough to go from the Renaissance to today and get all the stuff that happened between 1500 and today. What is the solution to this?

In my opinion, you really should allocate five years to high school history by beginning the “high school” history curriculum in 8th grade and starting with ancient. This will give you five years of high school history and give you the breathing room you need. Ancient is a good place to start because it’s simple. There’s a lot of content like, “And then Nebuchadnezzar wanted the land, so he took it,” or “Pharaoh Khufu built a big pyramid.” It’s pretty basic. But going into Greece and Rome in the second semester allows you to up the content a bit, getting into more complex political ideas to prep for high school proper.

Five-Year Cycle in Action

Then, in freshman year, you start with the Middle Ages and continue the cycle. So your five-year cycle would look like this:

  • 8th Grade Fall: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Babylon, Persia
  • 8th Grade Spring: Greece & Rome
  • Freshman Year Fall: Early Middle Ages (400-1000)
  • Freshman Year Spring: Late Middle Ages (1000-1500)
  • Sophomore Year Fall: Early Modern Europe (Renaissance and Reformation)
  • Sophomore Year Spring: Early Modern Europe (1648 to the French Revolution)
  • Junior Year Fall: French Revolution to Modern Day
  • Junior Year Spring: U.S. History 1492-1763
  • Senior Year Fall: U.S. History 1763-1865
  • Senior Year Spring: U.S. History 1865-Today

You’ll notice that this not only gives us more time for modern European history but also gives us three semesters of U.S.  instead of two, so we can get more modern U.S. history as well.


Now, there are certainly other ways to get this distribution. Many homeschool families are adding a fifth year of high school because kids are graduating at 16 and are not ready to go to college. Or you could do a series of summer history programs that function as a fifth year when added up. The bottom line is: If you find yourself getting crowded out of time when you try to teach modern history, you’ll need another year. Otherwise, it is likely you will run out of time on the four-year cycle.

Homeschool Connections offers a wide variety of online history courses to help you in your homeschooling. See our Course Finder to learn more.

If you’d like to continue this discussion, I invite you to join me and other Catholic homeschooling parents at our Homeschool Connections Community or our Facebook group.

Resources to help you in your Catholic homeschool…

Catholic Homeschool Classes Online

Homeschooling Saints Podcast

Good Counsel Careers

The Catholic Homeschool Conference

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