Rachel Hansen, Big History Teacher
Iowa, USA

“The situation today is like flying one of those pedal-driven contraptions with flapping wings that people created before discovering the laws of aerodynamics. At first, when the flight begins, all appears well. The airman has been pushed off the edge of the cliff and is pedaling away. But the aircraft is slowly falling.”


Aerial Machine invented by Dr. W. O. Ayres of New Haven (1885). Scientific American published May 9, 1885. Public domain.

This is the description of “civilizational flight” from Daniel Quinn’s novel, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. In Quinn’s metaphor, our civilization is a poorly designed aircraft, doomed for collapse and on a dangerously misunderstood flight. We’ve made an unfortunate miscalculation, mistaking freefall for flight.

The Rise, Fall, and Collapse of Civilizations, in Lesson 7.2, raises thought-provoking questions about civilizations that experienced this same disastrous “civilizational flight.” What I appreciate most about this activity is the simplicity of the directions and the freedom for students to explore the causes of societal collapse on their own.

Students choose three civilizations of the past, and then begin conducting their investigation. Included in their research is the reason for collapse, the claim testers, theory alignment (internal weakness, external conquests, environmental disasters), and citations. The activity is a great way to put the claim testers to work, and an engaging opportunity for students to build their skills in using evidence in argumentation. It also makes for an incredibly insightful Socratic seminar discussion, filled with more questions than answers.

We set up this activity with some visual note-taking on Jared Diamond’s TED Talk, “Why Do Societies Collapse?”. In his talk, Diamond outlines a five-point framework for collapse, using the Greenland Norse to illustrate his thesis:

● Human impacts on the environment
● Climate change
● Relations with friendly neighbors
● Relations with hostile neighbors
● Political, economic, social, and cultural factors

Our students find questions of societal collapse intriguing. This activity stirs up their intellectual curiosity, which compels them to find answers to challenging questions and ask more of their own. What happened to the Anasazi? Why did the Mayan civilization collapse just after its peak? To what extent does our own civilization show warning signs of collapse?

About the author: Rachel Hansen is a high school history and geography teacher in Muscatine, IA. Rachel teaches the BHP world history course over two 180-day semesters to about 50 ninth- through twelfth-grade students each school year.

BHP Students Excel on NY Regents History Exam

BHP Team

In New York State, students must pass Regents Examinations—statewide, standardized exams in core high school subjects—to graduate high school with a Regents Diploma. At the end of tenth grade, New York students take the Global History and Geography Regents Exam. At Oceanside High School, teachers found that the group of students who had taken the Big History Project course (BHP) the year before, as ninth graders, achieved a higher passing rate compared to the subset of students who had not.

Download the case study here.


Can you feel the focus?! © Getty.

For the June 2016 Global History and Geography Regents Exam, 89 percent of Oceanside High School tenth-grade students passed (432 out of 483 students). This group of 483 included Regents-level students, as well as those with disabilities, English Language learners (ENL), and other students with learning accommodations. This group also contained 96 former BHP students with a similar mix of learning levels and needs.

In the 2014/15 school year, these 96—who were then in the ninth grade—completed the year-long BHP course. The following school year, they progressed to tenth grade and the Global History II class. They were randomly assigned to one of twelve sections taught by one of six different teachers. At the end of the school year, all tenth graders sat for the Global History and Geography Regents Exam.

High Expectations Met with Success
After the Regents Exam results came in, BHP teachers wanted to know: “How did the former BHP students’ exam performance compare to those who did not take BHP?” So with some confidence but also fingers crossed, they calculated the passing rate for the group of former BHP students.

“We were prepared with explanations like ‘It was only our first year teaching the course’ or ‘Give us a break, we’re the first school on Long Island to do this.’ But we didn’t have to use them,” said BHP teacher Jason Manning.

The results? BHP students had a 96 percent passing rate on the Regents Exam, outperforming their non-BHP peers by 7 percent.

“It’s rewarding to know that implementing a course that we’re excited about led to quantifiable student success,” said BHP teacher Todd Nussen.

Engaging Course Builds Skills
Why did this happen? Mitch Bickman, Director of K–12 Social Studies for the Oceanside School District, believes that because the course narrative is more engaging to students, they are more motivated to learn. The course also offers more opportunities to hone literacy skills. “Students focus heavily on historical thinking skill and application of knowledge and are better prepared to authentically apply that learning across different mediums.”

Teacher Jason Manning believes the big difference is that in BHP, there’s teaching and learning that builds more than a fact base.

“I used to teach facts such as which Roman emperor built the Coliseum. Now we learn how to question, how to think about problems and critically consume information. Students walk away with an understanding of the conditions needed to build such a structure and the impact it had on history. These skills also improve the students’ writing, and even the smallest gains here can have a major impact on their scores.”

Perfect Timing for More Rigorous Exam
This is a particularly important time to focus on curriculum efficacy as changes in the Regents Exam are ahead. In the next few years, the exam will be based solely on the tenth-grade Global History and Geography II content, and will focus more on skills and less on content recall.

Mitch Bickman is optimistic that Oceanside students will be ready for the more rigorous format.

“As of 2015/16, we’ve entirely replaced our Global History and Geography I course for ninth graders with Big History. This is a great opportunity for Big History teachers to share the academic benefits of this course with New York State social studies teachers, as many will now be thinking about ways to either modify or replace their Global History and Geography I course so that students develop the skills they need to pass [the Regents Exam]. Based on these results, we feel we made the right choice.”

Download the case study here.


Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Teacher
Louisiana, USA

What better way for students to research early civilizations than to figure out what made them rise and thrive—and then create a museum exhibit to showcase their chosen civilization’s legacy? (Oh, and then “prove” that they were the “best” early civilization.) Early Civilizations Museum Project  from Lesson 7.1 of Big History is one that generates a ton of enthusiasm from my students, year after year.

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Students really go “all in” as they work in groups to create walk-through museum exhibits on different agrarian civilizations (such as Babylon, Egypt, the Inca, Rome). They produce a variety of assets for their exhibits—written pieces, videos, interactive elements—which means the creative potential is endless. There’s something of interest for all learners, and each group member can play to their strengths. It also helps that groups are competing against one another in order to prove that their civilization was the “best.”

Students not only research the history of their chosen civilization, but also its cultural legacy—including art, architecture, literature, and science. I also make sure students include information on the social and gender hierarchies of the civilization. My classes have created music videos, news reports, interactive games, and stunning visuals.

In order to up the stakes, I usually offer a prize to the group that is voted as having the best civilization. Students aren’t allowed to vote for their own group, but I’ve found that they actually vote based on which group has the most compelling argument—rather than for their friends. You might also involve the entire school in this project by setting up a museum exhibition for other classes to explore and having other teachers and administrators judge the presentations. This has consistently been the project that my students have rated as the best Big History activity.

About the author: Bridgette’s been teaching BHP as a semester-long history course since 2012 . She teaches ninth and twelfth graders at Saint Scholastica Academy, a private school for girls. Bridgette teaches 120 students a year in three 90-minute sessions per day.