END OF SCHOOL THOUGHTS: BHP COMPARED TO AN AVERAGE WORLD HISTORY COURSE

Shawn Bean
Big History Teacher, 9th Grade
Chicago Heights, IL

This blog goes out to all the teachers thinking about taking on the Big History Project. I work with many veteran teachers of World History, and they have been somewhat apprehensive to take on something as daunting as completely changing the way they’ve done things for 15+ years. And then we start talking about the way they’ve always done things, and how the BHP is setup. We begin by talking about the big connections students make when we teach the traditional method versus BHP. Greek democracy was huge, except all of Europe rejected it for over 1000 years. Alexander the Great was undefeated and spread Hellenistic ideas throughout Asia, and then his empire crumbled to pieces after his death. Constantly we discuss important figures and big ideas that are then cast aside. This is not the pattern of Big History, where we discuss the idea of thresholds, a point from which we will never go back. Once high mass stars were formed, the universe was on a new course where complex life as we know it was now possible. Why did the Iron Age come before the Age of Steel? Why is gold more valuable than silver? These types of questions are answered by BH and each unit builds on the previous unit, leading to a deeper understanding over a wider time period.

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As for a great moment in the course, it’s tough to pick one because we’ve had quite a few. To start with, the pilot group we picked was a group of students who traditionally don’t do all that well in school. The kids that everyone thinks should be getting A’s and B’s, but simply aren’t performing to their abilities. This group loved BH, and watching them excel has been my personal highlight for the year. As for an actual lesson that we did, my class combined with their Biology course to develop a plan to colonize either Mars or Venus. The discussions that took place simply blew me away. My students took the initiative to work with other groups, to share their information, and to solve problems that were incredibly deeper than anything we normally cover. They analyzed reports from NASA, and each group developed a great presentation that they shared with the administrators in our school.

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Last, some advice for anyone interested in teaching Big History next year for the first time. I have to begin by saying that you shouldn’t be afraid to take chances. Turn the kids loose, you’ll be amazed by what you will get from them when their interest is piqued. The time has passed when a teacher should be lecturing every lesson, students today need to take on a more active role. Big History allows this in many ways. My favorite part of BH includes the discussion questions added to the videos, allowing you to pause automatically at each question to make sure the students understand the material. Additionally, the videos are short, most are around 10 minutes, although at times the discussions end up taking at least twice the time as the video itself. Also, don’t be afraid to cover material you aren’t used to covering. My students were more fascinated by the voyages of Huang He than all the information they’ve learned about Columbus through the years. The ideas of Thomas Malthus and the implications it has on our world today blew my students away, and you don’t even find him in the average World History book. Also, the number of conversations I’ve had with the parents of my students has greatly increased. Students are going home and having conversations about what they learned in my classroom, and parents are also getting involved at a much higher rate. I’ve had teachers tell me that their classes are being interrupted by students talking about my material and that they’ve heard discussions in the lunchroom about my topics. What more could a teacher ask for?

To wrap things up, consider your traditional World History class at the end of the year. Imagine giving those students a final essay, asking them to begin with whatever arbitrary time period you start your class with and then explain everything you covered and how it all connects. Come to think of it, try doing it yourself and see how much you struggle. I tried doing this after I attended a Big History cluster meeting last year and it opened up my eyes. At that meeting, a local teacher said he gave his students the final prompt for an essay in his class “the Big Bang happened, and then what?” So like all good teachers, I stole his idea (thanks). My students were able to walk me through a version of history that followed the path of the course. Many even told me that it made more sense, that it was obvious once you saw the path. Thus, next year I am going to feature the Big History course as my version of World History for all 5 of my classes, and I’m quickly converting others in my school.

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Start your journey as a BH teacher, visit the Big History Project website to register for a free teacher account and access to our curriculum.

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