Big Goals for Big History in American High Schools

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Making connections

Big Goals for Big History in American High Schools

For many years, educational reformers, teachers and students have complained that the American high school curriculum is “a mile wide and an inch deep” and it exists in separate departments, courses, and classes with nothing to weave it into a coherent whole.

American teachers rarely get the chance to dig into anything in depth, while required to cover topics in history, social studies, math, English, and the sciences. Most of their students move from one topic to another, intellectually channel surfing through the school day.

If you want proof of this, take a look at the standards that every state requires teachers to teach. You’ll find lists upon lists and pages upon pages of disconnected content for students to learn and that state assessments will test.

Or, follow high school students through a typical day as they move from one class or lesson to another, and then try to figure out how the sum of these distinct educational parts creates a coherent whole. See if you can find any student who can explain the relationships between what was learned in history, math, English, and biology classes.

Or pick up a typical high school student’s backpack when it’s filled with the textbooks from her history, English, math, world language and science classes. Be sure to use both hands and bend from your knees as you’ll most likely be lifting over thirty pounds of “stuff” crammed between the covers of just five books. It’s ironic that a curriculum that lacks depth can foster textbooks with such heft.

Carrying those heavy books without developing back strain is only one of the challenges high school students face. More important are the challenges they face in making sense of or maintaining interest in a curriculum and a school day that is, for far too many adolescents, simply multiple “data dumps.” Is it any wonder that in the recent High School Survey of Student Engagement, 66 percent of the students surveyed said they are bored on a daily basis in school, with almost 20 percent reporting that they are bored in every class every day?

American education has always had reformers who promote grand plans with utopian promises at great expense to transform the system, stimulate student interest, and build meaning.

Well, the big history course offers a more modest, almost counter-intuitive way to meet some these educational challenges.

If the curriculum is packed with too many topics, then big history proposes you should add 13.7 billion years of “stuff” to it. And if your curriculum is a mile-wide and fragmented by departmental and disciplinary divisions, then big history expands it to become “universe-wide,” using almost all the disciplines to explore those 13.7 billion light years.

Confused? Well, let me explain.

The big history course isn’t designed to just cover 13.7 billion years of history. It encourages students to ask big questions, stimulating them to use a wide range of resources to “uncover” big ideas about how things came to be, how things work, and how we know. “Big history makes me think,” said one 9th grade student, “and not just memorize facts from the textbook.”

There isn’t a back-breaking or mind-numbing textbook for students to use, but an online, specially-constructed set of short lectures from some of the world’s most interesting scholars, and a robust library of primary and secondary texts, infographics, biographies, animations, and pictures. Both teachers and students report that the materials on the BHP course site are interesting, informative, and help them understand complicated ideas. Many students talked about giving their parents access to the course site because the ubiquitous “What did you do in school today?” had turned into “What did you do in big history today?”

Typically, each day the students in big history investigate important questions as they learn about major concepts and ideas from science, history and social science, such as Big Bang, formation of stars, development of the solar system, evolution, industrialization, globalization and Anthropocene. The concepts the big history students are encountering they also encounter in their other courses, digging in with more depth or from another perspective. “This class has allowed me to connect with other topics in different classes,” a student told us. “I’m better able to reference things from Big History in English and science and even Spanish.”

Big history is not just an accumulation of big questions, big ideas and interesting resources. It is a narrative, a story built around eight major turning points or thresholds in history. The concepts and facts fit within a coherent big picture that students create and critique, until by the end of the course they are able to tell a story, complete with evidence, of the major changes in the universe from the beginning of time on into the future.

And beyond simply understanding the course’s narrative, big history students also research and produce a “little big history,” by selecting a topic of interest to them (e.g., teddy bears, Tom shoes, film, Cheezits) and then investigate their topic’s origins and development.  This requires students to read across disciplines, to comprehend and interpret a variety of texts as they create an explanation or argument. In short, big history students meet many of the Common Core Literacy Standards.

I could go on and on, but I think you can see why I’m so excited about the experience the first cohort of BHP students have had in the course. They learned important concepts and facts from science, history and the social sciences, and were able to connect them in a meaningful ways while also improving their literacy and thinking skills.

And, they reported loving what they were learning and the interesting way they were learning it.

Though only piloted in a handful of schools last year, the Big History Project is rich with possibilities.

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