Three Hallmarks of the Big History Project

Greg Dykhouse
Big History Teacher, 9th Grade
Holland, MI

As a secondary education teacher, I often find myself inundated with the next “great” curriculum, benchmark and target system, innovative technology, interests from various stakeholders, and the like. With all the noise in the education space, it can be hard to prioritize the various initiatives and agendas, and pull out what’s actually good for my students.

For the past two years, I’ve found the Big History Project to be a refreshing change of pace compared to the myriad of educational and tech fads passing through my school.

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This free, state-of-the-art instructional approach well addresses the concerns and delivers on the claims made by the voices previously listed. The BHP illustrates how areas of study relate and connect to each other. By considering how operations from chemistry may illumine the work of archaeologists or anthropologists or how advances in technology may change our understanding of biology and life, students recognize that their courses may actually support each other, which is a great moment for students as they discover how their courses have relevance to one another. Subject knowledge does not remain in a vacuum; it, in fact, emerges as a component critical in understanding the greater world around us. The BHP ultimately offers a modern narrative of history, which incorporates science and the use of evidence and logic to explain our world.

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Beyond this general nature of interdisciplinary studies, three specific hallmarks of the BHP approach are the abundance and use of primary sources, the application of disciplinary writing, and the commitment to teacher training and development.

Primary Sources

The BHP features 10 text-based Investigations as culminating activities in each unit. Similar to the DBQ made popular by AP courses, each investigation requires students to take up a historical question, read and analyze primary and secondary documents that they then use to develop an evidence-based argument. The first five text-based Investigations explore how humans changed their understanding of the Universe, the elements, the formation of the Earth and of Life. Students focus on human’s understanding as they learn the scientific story. Each Investigation asks a “big” focus question. One investigation asks students to develop an argument to answer the question “When and why should people change their minds?,” which is a case study of Copernicus and Galileo. Another asks students to consider the extent to which the Modern Revolution been a positive or a negative force and encourages them to study large scale changes in politics, demography, disease, wealth and science. The method or process of the Investigation reflects the work of historians and other scholars as students frame a problem to study (higher level questions); research and analyze sources relating to the question, and formulate a thesis statement with detail and specificity to support the statement with specific evidence.

Disciplinary Writing

Students strengthen their written expression by working within the parameters of disciplinary writing. The hundreds of primary and secondary sources include work from historians, biologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, chemists, physicists, among others. The BHP uses “Common Core Curriculum” targets for writing to shape the assignments and the rubrics. Students are expected to learn how to introduce a precise claim; distinguish the claim from alternate or opposing claims; create an organization that establishes clear relationships among the claims, counterclaims, reasons, and evidence; develop a claim and counterclaim fairly; supply data and evidence in a discipline-appropriate form; establish and maintain an appropriate style and objective tone ; and provide a concluding statement. Last year, my high school freshmen produced about 40 pages of text each in the BHP course.

Teacher Training and Development

The BHP, interdisciplinary by design, encourages instructors to illustrate how fields of study and knowledge connect, a feature that allows students to see how their own course subjects support and connect to each other. Indeed, teacher-preparation programs may want to develop interdisciplinary experience, but the BHP already has provided substantive professional development (workshops, cluster meetings, networks, publications) to support the work of teachers. During my 19 years of high school teaching, I have found only my experience as an AP examination reader to be as rewarding and personally meaningful as is my participation with the BHP.

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