Incorporating BHP “Ways of Knowing” Lessons in the Classroom

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

“We know that early humans lived in hunter-forager societies because our textbook said so,” declared a student, and not without a degree of certainty and pride in her voice. Partially from curiosity, and partially from a desire to gauge student understanding, I had asked students to explain how we know about early human societies as we entered our sixth unit in the Big History course.

When pushed to ask how the textbook “knew” about early humans, she gave a small pause, and then a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. To her, it didn’t matter where that knowledge had come from—an authoritative source had declared it so, and that was the end of that!

As her teacher who aspires to have his students become good, critical and, indeed, skeptical thinkers, I find this to be problematic. This student’s response, though technically correct from her perspective, raised a question—how can I better incorporate “ways of knowing” in the Big History classroom? Doing so would push my students to think how we know what we learn in the classroom, thus pushing students to think critically and skeptically, and it would push them to consider the role of outside disciplines into understanding history.

In my first attempt to better incorporate this type of thinking in the classroom I referred to lesson 6.1 of the Big History site. In order to make the lesson more accessible to students, I began by creating a small worksheet asking students to identify and describe two fields, anthropology and archaeology. As I teach ninth-graders, I couldn’t assume that students knew what anthropology and archaeology were, so this was an important step in being able to consider different “ways of knowing” about early humans. To complete the worksheet, students watched the introductions to Archaeology and Anthropology already available in the lesson, and followed it with a brief discussion as to what each could tell us about early humans.

After establishing this prior knowledge, I took the available Historos Cave activity and modified it into a gallery walk, where students would travel from artifact to artifact, responding to two questions directly on the poster paper: “Which discipline would be most helpful (to interpret this artifact)?” and “What can we learn from this artifact”?

Below are sample images of the posters, along with a couple of student responses:

Maduena_FullSizeRender(35-37) Maduena_FullSizeRender(34-36)

For the next assignment, I would probably give students a range of artifacts that would clearly be best approached with a specific discipline to artifacts, which could be interpreted in a number of ways. I’d also look at how to better incorporate a discussion at the end of the lesson about the role that anthropology and archaeology play in our understanding of early humans.

Overall, this is the first time I’ve specifically focused on different ways of knowing in a class lesson, and so there are clearly things I would do differently in upcoming units. However, students did walk away with a better understanding of where our knowledge about early humans comes from, an understanding that is more sophisticated than “the textbook says so” and which recognizes the role of outside disciplines in historical knowledge.

How have you sought to incorporate “Ways of Knowing” in your own classroom?

CA High Schools: Big History is now a UC approved course!

NOTE: Submissions for the 2015-16 school year are due to the Big History Project by August 15th

To be admitted to the University of California, students must take a total of 15 “A-G” courses in high school, including at least two History/Social Science courses. In order to preserve the high standards for admission to the University of California, courses must be reviewed and approved in advance before they can be counted toward admission. Each course must be individually submitted to the Office of the President and meet strenuous requirements for approval.


Big History Project-World History (BHP-World History) has been approved as an ‘A’ History/Social Science course. This version integrates about six weeks’ worth of World History content, and is slightly compressed in order to make time for that additional content.

Want to teach Big History Project-World History at your school with UC approval?
The Big History Project has been approved as a program by the University of California. This means you do not have to submit your application with the UC. Instead, you must submit your application to the Big History Project, and then simply notify the UC. Follow these simple steps:

  1. Review the BHP-World History course plan, available here.
  2. Using the BHP course plan template, document how you plan to teach the course at your school. Note that you only need to detail any differences from the standard course plan. We expect most schools will change about 10 percent of the course. If you want to make more substantive changes, let us know and we can work with you to help create a version that fits your needs.
  3. Email your course plan to us at Help us out by putting UC Approval in the subject line. Be sure to attach your course plan to the mail.

We will review your plan and get back to you within a couple of weeks. Once you have received approval from us, you will need to send a notification to the University of California that you’re planning to teach a previously approved course. The University of California has created a set of instructions we hope you’ll find helpful.

Drop us a line at We’ll do everything we can to help!