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.

2 thoughts on “A Better Way to Teach Students

  1. To some extent I believe you can teach curiosity. If a child can feel he or she is a part of it all then the foundation is built to ask the questions how, why, where and does it inform who I am.

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  2. Pingback: Professional Learning That Works | Big History Project

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