How is investigating history like solving a mystery? Seasoned BH teacher David Burzillo wrote the History as Mystery activity to help students find out. This activity helps students think like historians, as they act as detectives to decipher clues and piece together our past. Students soon realize that simply finding one or two bits of historical evidence doesn’t always mean we understand exactly what happened. Read on to hear what David has to say about History as Mystery!
My name is David Burzillo, and I teach at the Rivers School in Weston, MA. I just completed my 30th year of teaching. I have been teaching Big History as an elective course for juniors and seniors at my school for five years, and I am currently teaching a summer version of the course (online) for a second summer in a row.
During the early part of my career, every class I taught relied on a textbook, and I very quickly started to feel frustrated by the limits of textbooks. I felt that they sanitized history, emphasizing the presentation of facts over what really made history interesting. I loved reading about the conflicting interpretations of past events, the debates about these interpretations, and the revision of interpretations when new evidence was discovered. I also loved history because I felt that there were a lot of mysteries—there was still so much to be learned about the past. The textbooks always made it seem like we already knew everything about the past when, in fact, there was so much we were clueless about. Textbooks took the debates and the mystery out of history for me, so I thought using them ensured that my students would not understand what was truly exciting about history. One reason why I love the Big History teaching materials is that they definitely give students the opportunity to learn about the debates over different interpretations and major mysteries in the various academic fields.
I have always been a big fan of Law and Order, and I have toyed with the idea of starting the year by showing an episode in class. The mystery is never solved in the first five minutes. In the best episodes the detectives have to change their hypothesis about the crime multiple times as they discover new evidence. The hypothesis they end up with is usually not the one they started off with. They often lack a key piece of evidence, like an eyewitness report, DNA, or a weapon. I have always felt that history is like this: you have to be prepared to change your hypothesis multiple times, and you will never feel that you have enough evidence. My colleagues and I like the analogy of the “historian as detective.” I tell my students at the start of the year that when they study an historical event, they will likely never have all the evidence they would like to interpret the event. They need to construct the best interpretation they can, and they need to be prepared to revise it if they—or someone else—discovers more evidence later on.
Why did I base the History as Mystery activity on the video The Headless Romans? When I first saw the video The Headless Romans, I thought that this was the perfect story to convey the idea of the historian as detective in a Big History class. When construction workers in York, England discovered the skeletons of beheaded people, local archaeologists wanted to know who these people were, but the answer was not immediately clear. Solving the mystery required the input of a diverse team of experts: archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, experts on teeth, art, Roman religion, and historians. At various points in the story, the analysis of evidence by a particular expert would suggest a particular hypothesis, but when another expert weighed in, that hypothesis would often need to be revised. The interdisciplinary team ended up constructing a convincing explanation for the identity of the headless people as executed Roman soldiers, but only after a long process of give and take between the various scholars. This seems to be exactly what happens in the story of Big History. Experts from many disciplines contribute to the story, and it is only in the give and take of these disciplines that a coherent and convincing story can be told.
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