Rachel Hansen, BHP Teacher
Iowa, USA

As budding teenagers, our students have a pretty small worldview. Big History challenges them to expand that tiny bubble. Lesson 8.3’s Personal Supply Chain activity especially shatters a lot of preconceived notions students have about the way the world works. As they trace the supply chain of a product they’ve chosen, they find that the process is much more complex than they ever imagined—and sometimes not as transparent as they’d like it to be. Even products manufactured in the USA use raw materials and energy sources from all over the world. Or as one student put it, “Nothing is as local as it seems.”

I absolutely love watching their worldview explode. Here is our approach.


Step One: Made in (Insert Country Here)
To kick off the activity, we start by mapping where our shirts, shoes, electronics, backpacks, and notebooks are made. Then, we analyze the patterns and trends of the distribution of our stuff. We finish up by discussing the implications. Where in the world are our products NOT made? Why does it matter?

Step Two: What’s a Supply Chain?
If you have the luxury of time (like few of us), I highly recommend watching The Story of Stuff. It’s a great breakdown of four key components in the supply chain: supply, manufacturing, distribution, and consumption. If you’re squeezed for time (like most of us), check out NPR’s Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt.

This year, we only had the luxury of 10 minutes to try and get students to grasp the whole supply chain concept, so we handed out fun-sized candy bars and asked students to do some quick research on raw materials, factories, transportation, and forms of energy used in the process. (Side note: The following day, I scolded a student for taking a phone call during class…only to find out he was on the phone with a representative from the Mars company, still unsatisfied with the answers he was getting about their palm oil suppliers. Worldview exploded.)


Student Sample: Burt’s Bees Pink Grapefruit Refreshing Lip Balm. This was the “nothing is as local as it seems” even though it is made in America product.

Step Three: Cut Them Loose!
Once they’ve explored the big picture, students are eager to get started on their own research. They choose an item and trace out its supply chain. Mapping their work is especially enlightening. As an extension, we also challenged students to map electronically using ArcGIS (check out this one of a surfboard). Here are some of the takeaways from our students:

  • “I realize now that certain companies can own companies I never knew of. It surprised me when I found out that SoBe is owned by PepsiCo.”
  • “I learned that there is a lot of money involved. It takes a lot of time and energy to make and ship these products.”
  • “It has opened my eyes to how big my carbon footprint is. I chose a product that I knew was made in America, and it makes me feel better about my use. I want to start using less and reduce my footprint. Because of this project, I know how to help the Earth.”

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.

Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum

Jillian Turner, Big History Teacher
Sydney, Australia

With the deadline for NSW Education Standards Authority School Developed Board Endorsed courses looming on April 7, I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about one example of what my students and I have gained from taking and teaching the Big History Project course.

The chief aim of any teacher is to equip our students to think. In an age of “fake news” and conflicting truths, the significance of logical, reasoned argument and critical thinking is painfully apparent. We can often, however, find that a crowded curriculum worries out these loftier aims. The pressure to ensure our students cover the content for each topic in order to pass an exam can be more immediate than any long-term gains.

In my year 10 (or tenth grade, is Americans call it) history elective class this week I had an experience that inspired me to try harder to incorporate critical thinking into all of my lessons. I’m teaching BHP as my Year 10 course, and I had just introduced my students to one of its key ideas—claim testing. Briefly, claim testing gives students a scaffold to measure the claims that they’ll encounter throughout the course. They use four “claim testers”—intuition, logic, authority, and evidence—to assess claims. My students looked at Easter Island as a case study in examining claims. We explored different explanations for what caused the population of the island to collapse.


As students reviewed the sources I provided, they made the conclusion I see regularly: they believed the most recent source without considering that it was the age of the source and not its merits that was swaying them. But then one student stopped and asked her group, “Who is this guy? What authority does he have?” They began to look more closely at the author of the source, Jared Diamond, and the more they looked the more questions they asked. They drew on a previous lesson on the use of different scales in history to discuss the merits of his approach and to consider whether the purpose of his text (explaining the rise and fall of civilizations) might have influenced the evidence he chose to use in his explanation.

The ensuing discussion was genuinely exciting. The class didn’t make any conclusions, they discussed back and forth until the bell, but their awareness of the way they approached knowledge gave them the language to engage in an intellectually challenging debate about the relative merits of Jared Diamond’s text and the impact of his environmental message on his interpretation of the history of Easter Island. I left the lesson with the sense that my students had done something important that day. They had internalized the model of critical thinking that the Big History course introduced them to and they were applying it without my intervention.

Explicitly teaching students how to think critically and then giving them opportunities to practice this skill is at the heart of Big History. I am increasingly enthusiastic about using this course to teach my students to think so that they move into the world equipped to judge a claim wisely on its merits. This ability will be far more important than any content I might teach and will produce results across the entire curriculum.

Australian teachers, please note: Big History is approved as a NSWESA School Developed Board Endorsed Course for 100 and 200 hour Stage 5 and 1 Unit Preliminary. For further details visit:

About the author: Jillian Turner has taught history since 2007 and BHP since 2013 at both public and private secondary (high) schools in Sydney, Australia. Her school year lasts 40 weeks and she teaches the year-long BHP course to about 30 students per year.

World Explorers: Mini Project, Maximum Thinking

Jenny Holloway, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

Our Big History team at Mount Si High School created the Lesson 8.1 Explorers Mini Project out of desperation. With so many explorers, how could we teach them all without subjecting students to “death by PowerPoint”? Our solution was this project, which has since been added to the BHP curriculum.

The Explorers Mini Project asks students to research, from a given list, an explorer responsible for connecting two world zones. They must answer questions related to their explorer’s motivations, accomplishments, and contribution to collective learning. In true BHP form, students are also asked to identify evidence that contributes to our current knowledge: what was left behind that allows us to trace their explorer’s journey?

What’s great about this activity is that it forces students to think outside the box—as they assess, for example, how their explorers contributed to collective learning. This question is a welcome challenge for most, as it encourages thinking beyond obvious facts and prods students to make connections between their explorer’s achievements and how they contributed to phenomena like globalization. Even though students struggle with answering the higher-level questions connected to the BHP themes, I think the process is healthy and worth it!

This mini project bridges BHP themes and world history nicely. Your students may need extra guidance as they engage in research, and some encouragement to think outside the box. I’m happy to offer extra support and share the unique twist we add on at Mount Si—just tag me in a post in the BHP Online Teacher Community!

About the author: Jenny Holloway is in her fifth year teaching history at her current high school in Mount Si, WA. She teaches 2–5 classes per day of the year-long BHP course to about 30 ninth- and eleventh-grade students.