Five Personal Thresholds of Teaching Complexity

Angelina Kreger
Big History Teacher, 11th & 12th Grade
Novi, Michigan

At the end of last school year, I was asked to present to my department about what I have learned from teaching Big History. My department, while supportive of my endeavor, did not know about the content or instructional methods employed. They knew that I taught a course that was viewed as a senior elective, which took place over the course of one semester. They were aware that students brought in their parents to view their final presentations, and that my class was the one that kids brought in balloons, shake weights, and ukuleles for, but other than that they were in the dark.

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It was difficult at first for me to narrow down what it was exactly that I learned. How could I explain to them that teaching this course, in the manner that I do, has completely revolutionized my outlook on teaching? I struggled with what I should include in my 5-minute presentation. Should I leave out things like how to incorporate dressage videos into the “Horses: A Little Big History” article in order to increase engagement and lighten the classroom atmosphere? Or that everyone teaching world history really could have their students act as if they were hunter-gatherers in search of dinner without using language, to show the value of that tool? I wasn’t quite sure if they would see the relevance and make the connection that even those seemingly small tasks and activities can change the nature of a classroom and help engage students while also aiding learning. By looking at dressage videos, I was able to ask questions like, “Why did the author not include this? If it was included, how valuable would it be to the Little Big History narrative?” Or, “Is there a conjecture that could be made about why this style of horse riding developed initially?” Would my colleagues see that as interesting or useful information?

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Ultimately, I decided to share Kreger’s Five Thresholds of Teaching Complexity!

  1. Change is good: Teaching Big History delivers a cutting-edge opportunity to change the way content is delivered and the interactions between students, teacher, and curriculum. The use of overarching themes like claim testers, thresholds, Goldilocks Conditions, and scale provides students a road-map to process the information that they encounter.
  2. Know your weaknesses and address your strengths: I am not a science teacher and have leaned on members of that department to assist me with the first part of the course. I have also worked closely with the school librarian to help my students complete meaningful research for their Little Big History projects. The success of this course relies on creating relationships and reaching out to others.
  3. Reading and writing are still the most important skills: As you know, Big History is a course that engages students through reading and writing. By creating high-interest, age-appropriate readings and pairing those with skills-based writing assessments, the students increase their reading and writing abilities.
  4. Cut, cut, cut…it will be ok: Other courses should take a page from Big History’s playbook and cut content. We provide a seamless narrative that spans the entirety of history based on themes and large ideas, supported by high-interest details. This is a far cry from the way many classrooms operate. Usually, students must learn the minutiae of a subject. Big History asks students to support conjectures using scientific and historic content while keeping in mind the larger narrative being studied.
  5. Be thankful: The opportunity and support you receive when associated with the Big History Project team is invaluable. Also, the opportunity to work with individuals from around the world and share materials with them is exciting.

As a new year approaches I am excited to begin the journey again. Each year I hone assignments, amend timing, and find new and exciting ways to present content. I feel as if I have learned so much from teaching this course and have become a more confident and engaging teacher. Good luck this year and continue to support and advance the Big History community.

A Better Way to Teach Students

Shawn Bean
Big History Teacher, 9th Grade
Chicago Heights, Illinois

For 15 years, I taught World History in relatively the same manner:  we started with early man and hoped to get through World War II by the end of the year. We’d jump from the Greeks to the Romans, making connections where we could. And along the way I became comfortable, knowing I could walk into the room and teach a solid lesson. And yet as the years passed, our demographics changed, interest levels were no longer the same, and I found that more and more students simply learned enough to get through the test. It was time for a change, and that’s when I found the Big History Project last year. While going through the website, I found what I believe to be a better way to teach students for the next century. Often I tested the interest levels by just asking my students some of the bigger questions, such as “where do you think gold came from?” Time and time again the students who I believed were simply not trying in my class would start paying attention, and at that point I was sold on the Big History Project.

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The most important thing, in my humble opinion, for someone to factor in when taking on a shift in curriculum such as this is to understand that your role in the classroom will change. The best way to sum it up comes from an amazing technology conference that I went to, where the speaker Zachary Walker told us “you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” You must be willing to take a step back and allow the students the chance to explore, argue, create, and even at times fail. You must understand that you won’t know everything, and the students will need to learn that class time isn’t for playing stump-the-teacher.

This is not to say though that change will come easily. You don’t change years of behavior or a culture of a school overnight. Bringing these ideas to my colleagues, more than a few of them questioned whether our students could handle the workload. Our district typically only sends about 33 percent of our students to college, and the south side of Chicago has had more than its share of financial problems. This is part of the reason why my two classes will be piloting the program next year; most people need to see success before they will totally buy in. As for me, I’m already sold.

The reason I’m a believer is not necessarily the content or the articles, it’s the whole idea of what Big History really is. The process becomes more important than the subject, as the jobs of the future will require students to be able to learn how to learn, how to solve problems, and how to ask the right questions. We must personalize the learning, and activities such as the Little Big History project allow the students to literally research the history of anything on a scope they have never considered.

Preparing for BHP and IB

Raphael Zadey
Big History Teacher, IB Middle Years Program
Adelaide, Australia

It’s not often that a teacher, regardless of the country or system within which they work, is offered the opportunity to travel overseas and work with a dedicated educational opportunity.

Yet that is entirely what happened. Along with colleagues Nick Gillies and Jarrod Chave, I travelled to Seattle, WA, in order to participate in the bgC3-sponsored Big History summit of 2014. This summit brings together the Big History educational community in order to organise approaches to and consistency around the delivery of an integrated history course that reconciles scientific theory with historical concepts.

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In addition to meeting some incredibly enthusiastic practitioners and genuinely nice people, we were given our first opportunity to take a closer look at the program, and to consider ways in which we might introduce it to Blackwood High School. For those unfamiliar with Big History, the course explores the nature of the Universe, life, and the human experience through an abbreviated and yet quite profound study of a series of key events (thresholds) in history, including but not limited to the Big Bang, the formation of the Solar System, the development of life on Earth, the evolution of humanity, and the increasing complexity of the human experience. The program concludes by posing questions about the human experience going forward.

The program presents our team with a two-fold challenge; that of aligning the program into the International Baccalaureate’s Middle Years Program (IBMYP) while at the same time incorporating it into the an already crowded syllabus, a syllabus that is currently being re-written in accordance with a federally mandated curriculum. These challenges are by no means impossible to overcome. By working with an IBMYP pilot team, comprising partner schools from the US, the UK, and India, we are confident in our ability to map Big History to the interdisciplinary course contained within the IBMYP. As for the crowded curriculum; here we expect to take a leaf from our US colleagues’ book, incorporating the program into a Year 10 History or Science elective. The course would be delivered by two teachers, an historian and a scientist, via a paired teaching program, alternating according to our areas of expertise.

The nature of the course is its strength, not only in the knowledge it will provide our students, but also in the mindset it engenders, an understanding of our Universe and our place within it, as well as an openness to rational and evidence-based thinking. The program’s essential skills and core concepts are entirely compatible with the aims, capabilities, and values of both the IB and Australian Curriculum. An initial take on the course highlights three strengths:

  • The challenge it presents teachers and students alike to test the ways in which they construct their understandings of the world and their place within it
  • The effective and critical use of source material
  • The opportunities it provides to enhance student literacy

What next for the Blackwood team? We will meet in early August in order to identify the vehicle by which we will introduce the program, while at the same time working closely with the IBMYP project group in order to generate our course document and maintaining close contact with the Big History team. It’s an exciting time and we’ll be sure to keep everyone posted on our journey.