Why Big History?

Alex Maduena
Big History Teacher, 9th Grade
Los Angeles, CA

Towards the end of March of the last school year, I kept hearing one variation of this quote or another: “Alright, teacher, so I get the individual time periods, but honestly, I still don’t get how they all just fit together!

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If I could summarize the popular sentiment of most of my sophomore AP World History students last year in one quote, it would be this one. Sure, students were perfectly adept at developing an understanding of individual time periods and regions, and could do so quite well. Looking at detailed results from last school year’s APWH results, many of our students were represented the top 25% of national scores in two of the six time periods in the course. Their understanding of individual time is then quite impressive, but their ability to bring all together into a coherent understanding of world history was clearly lacking, and held some students back from succeeding in the course.

Indeed, many students seemed a bit shocked, if not upset, that they were expected to understand history in a unified sense! Perhaps it was the mistake of a first year AP teacher to constantly remind them how all the pieces “just fit together,” but I get the feeling that this is a much larger problem. I suspect that student expectations about what truly constitutes historical knowledge is only a reflection of a larger attitude fostered by traditional school curriculums, which present bodies of knowledge and disparate and unrelated. After all, one goes from Period 1 Mathematics, and then goes to Period 2 English, and never shall the twain meet! There they are, bodies of knowledge wrapped up into neat, one-hour segments.

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But that’s not how knowledge works in the real world, is it? Nor should history, as a study of that very world that we are preparing students for, be limited to itself. Indeed, true historical knowledge requires that one be comfortably familiar with concepts in economics, science, statistical mathematics, and bodies of world literatures.

So the question arises: How do we prepare students to bring together their knowledge into a coherent narrative of the world? At our school site, we are attempting to close that gap with Big History.

This will be our first year with the program, but already I am excited to see what happens when we allow students to see history as not a series of disparate events and disjointed subjects, but in a larger sense—as “big history.”

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From an immediate perspective, the Big History curriculum, with its series of investigations and inclusion of multiple fields should allow students to be better prepared for their higher level history courses, especially as it should give them a coherent sense of history. From a broader perspective, collective learning is futile unless our students are able to synthesize the learning of previous generations as a coherent whole. Without being able to do so, our students are destined to keep confusing disparate, rote knowledge for authentic understanding.

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