Bob Bain
Big Historian, Professor of History & Educational Studies, University of Michigan
Michigan, USA

Lee Shulman, former head of the Carnegie Foundation, tells a story about how his University of Chicago mentor, Joseph Schwab, shocked him into being a better reader and writer. Early in his undergraduate career, Schulman was explaining what he had read for class and Professor Schwab halted him by saying, “Mr. Shulman, I did not ask you what the author said. I can read what he said. Everyone can see what he said. Rather, I asked you what was the author doing in the essay? So, let’s start over and let’s begin with first paragraph: What is the author doing in this paragraph?”

This is a powerful question and one I have appropriated in my teaching and writing. It pushes readers and writers past summary to uncover purpose.

I use “doing” language to help my students, whether in high school or at the university, think about their writing. This turns out to be valuable in two critical stages of writing: First, in deciding on the overall purpose of the essay; and second, in determining the purpose of the sections of a paper.

Establishing the Overall Purpose: Story, Explanation, or Argument

What do you want to do? Historians typically can “do” one of three things when they write: Tell a story, make an explanation, or construct an argument.

Telling a story: Do you want to tell a story about how something happened? That is, do you want to string together events and actors in such a way to provide the reader (or listener or viewer) a chronological tale of an occurrence? If so, you are constructing a historical narrative. Historian J. H. Hexter once wrote that history is a “patterned, coherent account of the human past intended to be true.” His patterned and coherent accounts were historical narratives. When “doing” a narrative, a historian essentially uses chronology to tell a story, typically about cause and/or effect. Narrative history connects events, showing how one thing led to another. For example, a historian might tell a story of the major events and figures that moved the United States along the road to Civil War between 1848 and 1860. Or a world historian might tell a story about the settling of a new frontier, say Australia, from a few different points of view. Or a Big Historian might tell a story about how the cosmos became more complex over 13.8 billion years, in just 18 minutes. That is what narrative history does.

Making an explanation: Or do you want to tell, describe, clarify, or illuminate why something happened? Is your purpose to enlighten the reader about either the causes or consequences of a historical phenomenon? If so, you are constructing a historical explanation. Explanations are related to historical narratives, though they typically are not in a story form nor must they have a chronological sequence to them, as narratives do. That is, to describe what caused the Civil War, a historian might group events by political, economic, domestic, or international reasons.

Constructing an argument: Or do you want to justify, defend, or support a particular claim about a historical event or actor? Is your purpose to attack the veracity or plausibility of someone else’s claim? If so, you’re making or developing a historical argument. Arguments consist of claims, evidence, and then reasons or warrants why the evidence offered encourages the reader to accept the claim. Again, historical arguments are related to historical explanations since most explanations consist of others’ arguments. And an explanation might be incorrect or partially correct as it depends essentially upon the quality of the claims and arguments it uses.

Explanations and arguments: same or different? Some people argue that explanation and argument in history (and science) are the same. I do think explanation and argument are different. For example, explanation and argument have different discourse “rules.” Historians rarely use their own voice when writing historical explanations (for example, “The major causes of the war were . . .”); however, the author is clearly present when historians make an argument (“Some historians claim that the major cause was this, but I think it was this . . .,” for example).

By the way, if you took a quick look back at the last four paragraphs you would see three paragraphs of description and one of argument. For three paragraphs, I wanted to explicate the three genres of historical writing; in the fourth paragraph, I began an argument by disagreeing with others and was beginning to make an explicit claim using “I.” Much as I would love to continue making the argument, offering supportive claims, evidence, and reasons, I want to spend the remainder of the essay explaining what historians do in the different sections of a historical argument (smile).

What Do Historians Do When Writing an Argument?

The BHP courses ask students to regularly make historical arguments. In most of the Investigations, students must take a stance, make claims to support their stance, provide evidence and reasons for those claims, consider opposing claims, and close their argument. Essentially, this is what historians do when making an argument. That is, historians introduce a position, make and warrant claims to support the position, and close the argument with discussion of implications and significance.

Let’s look more carefully at these three features of historical arguments.

I. Introducing the position: The first thing a historian does is introduce the historical problem and their central claim, position, or thesis. This is what the historian should be doing in an introduction to the paper or book. Historians do this at the beginning of their argument. In a book, this typically is in the preface or introduction. In a paper, it usually is the first or second paragraph.

What does the introduction do?

The introduction establishes the historical problem or question, and states the author’s position or thesis. The introduction tells the reader about the issue, why it’s important, and why it matters. Often, a historian will open with a startling quote or statistic to capture the reader’s attention, or to set up the central theme, or to show why the reader should care about the issue.

However, the most important thing the historian does in the introduction is to clearly state the author’s position or stance. Every good historical book or argumentative essay presents the historian’s position, claim, or thesis on the issue or question. This should be one or two statements that capture or summarize the historian’s argument. It is not vague. What does the thesis statement do? It conveys the stance that the historian is taking on the problem, and states what the paper will try to prove.

Finally, most historians try to do one more thing. They try to cue the reader in a sentence or two into where they are going. They often offer a brief map of where they’re going in the rest of the book or paper.

II. Making claims, offering evidence, and giving reasons: The next thing the historian does is support the position or thesis with lots of claims, evidence, and reasons. This is what the historian does in the body of the paper or book.

Supporting the thesis with claims, evidence, and reasoning: Historians follow the introduction with support for their position or thesis. Since historians want to persuade others that their position is correct or the best position, they offer as much support for the position as they can. Called the body of an argument, this is usually several pages (or even chapters) or paragraphs. What do historians do in this section?

First, they make a number of claims to support their thesis. Each claim is a statement the historian wants the reader to accept as true and is offered to support the historian’s overall position or thesis. In many ways, these claims are like a “mini-thesis.”

How does the historian show that the claim is credible? Typically, they provide some evidence or external authority from a credible source to encourage the reader to accept the claim. This is something all good historians do. They always name the source for the claim so the reader is able to test the claim themselves. In short, they cite the sources for their claims.

Merely naming a source is, however, not all that the historian does in writing an argument. They never just drop the name of a source in and assume the reader will be convinced. Rather, they analyze or explain how the evidence supports the paragraph’s claim.

Organize the supporting claims into logically flowing paragraphs: Historians organize or structure the claims, evidence, and reasons using paragraphs and transitions to logically take the reader to the conclusion. There are many ways to organize or structure the paragraphs. Some historians use categories (for example, political, economic, domestic, international) to structure the paragraphs. Others use importance (for example, the most significant, the underlying cause, the immediate cause) to structure their points. Some frame the argument from the most general supporting claim, to the most specific.

However, good arguments always have a structure that reveals the author’s reasoning for their position. They use each paragraph to build a strong foundation for their position or thesis. In a sense, the paragraphs are the bricks on which the thesis rests. The strongest thesis will collapse if the following paragraphs aren’t strong. Each paragraph should flow into the next and this is done through the effective use of transitions.

Considering other positions: Historians often consider other positions, explaining to the reader why those positions are not as credible. How do they do that? They might challenge a counterclaim by showing it isn’t true or they may criticize their own claim, and then show why the criticism isn’t significant.

To summarize, historians do three things in the body of their papers or books. They make their strongest supporting claims, name the evidence or facts that led them to make the claims, and then explain how the evidence connects to the claims. They organize their argument into paragraphs, and organize the paragraphs to make the most persuasive case. Finally, they acknowledge other positions or the limitations in their position, but then explain why these do not shift their major position or their thesis.

III. Closing the argument: The final thing the historian does is wraps up the argument by restating the position or thesis and suggests why it is significant or suggests implications. This is what the historian does in the conclusion to the argument.

The conclusion is not very long, certainly when compared to the body of the argument. What does the conclusion do? It should restate the position clearly and strongly. Many historians use the conclusion to essentially summarize, but some of the strongest historical writing does more in the conclusion. The historian often raises bigger issues that lead from their position, claims, and evidence. They might discuss implications for the position in other settings, or in the future, even draw some parallels to other historical situations in other times or places. Some offer speculations or conjectures that they would never offer in the body of their argument, as if demonstrating that they have earned the right to speculate or extend their argument into other areas.


BHP Team
Washington, USA


Big History teacher Damian Pawlowski in his classroom at Los Gatos High School. Photo © Amal Bisharat.

In the BHP course, students are presented with, and asked to make sense of, a lot of very big ideas. In the process, they’re doing a ton of reading and writing. Students read some pretty challenging texts from contemporary scholars, as well as older primary source material. They’re also asked to write. A lot. For many students, BHP provides a foundation of the skills they’ll need for the social studies courses they’ll take in subsequent years.

The approach taken by BHP to develop student literacy skills is pretty straightforward. We have clear expectations and routines, all of which are introduced early and reinforced often. However, some teachers may find that they prefer using their own approaches. Great! Our aim isn’t to replace a strategy that’s working for you. We want to facilitate a conversation among teachers from around the world about different approaches to teaching literacy skills.

This week, we’re going to focus our blog on some key questions about how the course helps students develop literacy skills, and also review the practices embedded in BHP that will help your students improve. We want to do more than just introduce the topic; we want to raise questions that even our veteran teachers will find interesting.  We want to provide a brief overview of some of the basic assumptions we’ve made in the development of the BHP course, and highlight the tools available to you. The material below is far from comprehensive, but we hope it will serve as a quick overview for those new to the Big History Project.

BHP students are presented with a lot of information during the course, which includes more than 120 articles and over 90 videos. To help you help them get the most out of all that material, we’ve included these strategies and resources:

  1. Three close reads
    It’s as effective as it is simple – we’ve written all of our materials under the assumption that students will read each text multiple times. Each of the three readings focuses on a different aspect of the text. The first read is a quick preview to capture the gist of the article. The second read is more factual, focusing on the specific content covered in the reading. The final read is conceptual: We ask students to consider the reading through the lens of the lesson’s big questions. Although the three close reads process can seem tedious at first, the goal is for students to internalize the practice as a lifelong habit.
  2. Leveled readings
    Each article in this course is available at multiple reading levels. We want to ensure that students have access to the readings at a level appropriate for them so they can participate in class, regardless of their reading skills.
  3. Video as text
    The BHP course includes a ton of video. We’ve found that too often, students are passive rather than active viewers of text when it’s presented in video format. If we consider video as text, the same practice of three close reads proves helpful. We provide transcripts to help provide a preview of the video and annotate it along the way. We provide captions as secondary cues, and to help with your students’ factual “read,” we’ve also embedded questions at which you can pause the video.
  4. Vocabulary from Text Genome
    This year, BHP teamed up with our friends at Text Genome to provide an industry-leading set of tools for students. Much more than a mere list of definitions, our vocabulary represents critical concepts important to understanding the big ideas in the course. Each reading and video will include its own Text Genome report in which the essential vocabulary is listed. For each word, you’ll find related words (semantic network), forms of the same word (morphology), as well as several examples of the word used in context. We’ve also introduced new activities to help students really understand the vocabulary.

Students do a lot of writing in BHP. Our approach to helping them develop their writing skills is simple: We use the same rubric throughout the year, which helps students fully understand what it means. Throughout the course, we give students numerous opportunities to write both formally and informally. We know—because we’ve seen it in our own research—that with regular feedback on their work, students’ writing will improve.  Here are some of the resources and strategies for improving writing skills included in BHP:

  1. BHP Writing Rubric and the use of claim testing
    You’ll use one writing rubric used throughout the entire course. Together with the repeated practice of claim testing, this gives students a simple and consistent approach to thinking about their writing, an approach that builds upon itself over the year. It’s introduced early in the year, and then students dive into details in the second half of the course. The BHP Writing Rubric is based on the practices identified in the C3 and the CCSS, as well as writing assessments students will see in the future, such as the SAT and AP exams.
  2. Formal writing assessments
    The BHP course includes an essay assignment—called an Investigationin every unit. Modeled on the DBQ (document based question) assessments you might find in the SAT or other standardized tests, each Investigation asks students to review a series of texts, and then compose an evidence-based response. A key difference between DBQs and BHP Investigations is that the Investigations are scaffolded, which provides supports early on to help students develop habits for successful writing.
  3. Classroom writing activities
    The course includes a variety of student writing activities, both formal and informal. Repeated activities like the Driving Question Notebook provide opportunities for students to journal their thinking around the central question for each unit, capturing their assumptions early in the unit, based on prior knowledge, and then later on formalizing their understanding with evidence. The course also includes a variety of more formal activities aimed at developing student understanding of the BHP Writing Rubric, and strategies for improving their own writing.
  4. Student writing growth
    Each year, we work with the University of Michigan to conduct a study that looks at student writing progress over the duration of the course. We’ve shown that the very basic approach embedded in BHP has a real and significant impact on student learning.

BHP Score
This year, for the first time, the Big History Project is introducing an essay-scoring service for schools called BHP Score. We’ve inferred from our ongoing research that one secret to continued improvement in student writing is increased feedback to students. Of course, teachers are already pressed for time and are grading as much student work as they possibly can. The BHP Score service provides a formative opportunity for teachers and students to get an external point of view on student essays. Teachers can then work with students to review the results and help them develop ideas about how to improve in subsequent drafts or future work.


Dave Burzillo
Big History Teacher, Massachusetts, USA

About the author: Dave has taught for over 30 years, more than 25 of them at his current school, a private high school in Weston, MA. For the last 7 years, he has taught BHP to ninth, eleventh, and twelfth graders in classes that range in size from 12 to 16 students. His school runs on a trimester system, which gives him about 90 days to cover 13.8 billion years of history. Recently, Dave began offering an online Big History Project course in the summer.


The eight thresholds of increasing complexity

In Big History, the very first lesson of the very first unit concludes with the introduction of the eight thresholds. That’s because really there is no moving forward without a basic understanding of each threshold and a perspective on where they occur on the 14-billion-year spectrum. To gloss over them would be like taking music lessons without learning each note in the scale.

What are the eight thresholds? In his TED Talk, after David Christian establishes BHP’s driving question—“How did everything come to be the way it is today?”—he identifies the thresholds as key moments in our Universe after which there was no turning back. Nothing would ever be as it was before. The Big Bang, the lighting up of the first stars, the appearance of life on Earth, the Modern Revolution—these are just a few of those moments. Together, the eight thresholds make up the core narrative of the course.

By the end of the year, I want my students to deeply understand the thresholds and to be able to describe the conditions that brought each about as well as the resulting new complexities. However, at the beginning, my goal is simply for students to learn what the thresholds are so they can grasp the overall narrative. Although they’ll learn more details about the thresholds later, this early overview is essential in enabling students to connect ideas across units.

In Unit 2, the article “Complexity and Thresholds” also offers an excellent introduction, and students explore the notion even more in classroom activities.

To reinforce what they’ve learned in the Threshold 1 video, reading, and activity, I break my students into small groups and give them a pop quiz in which they need to list the eight thresholds. I’ll often have them do this first in class, on a couple of consecutive days, before asking them to do it on their own. I also like to take a few minutes in class and go around the room, having students name a different threshold (in the correct order, of course!). I ask students to volunteer to name all eight thresholds of the course, and pretty quickly they’re all able to do this. Each of these exercises takes only a few minutes of class time, and although these are low-stakes assessments, I think there’s great value in students learning the thresholds from the start. This knowledge will help them understand how the course is organized; give them insight into how the disciplines and content for each unit were chosen; and help them keep in mind where we’ve come from and where we’re going in the course.

Just like that musician who had to learn the notes of the scale in order play chords and melodies later, my students are able to approach BHP’s increasingly complex ideas with a fundamental knowledge that makes even the most difficult lessons engaging.