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.

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