Thinking across different scales: How I use BHP to teach historical analysis

Joe Jarvis
Big History Teacher, 9th Grade
Granby, CT

Thinking across different scales of time and space is critical in Big History and historical analysis, and is one of the three essential skills in the Big History Project (along with integrating multiple disciplines and claim testing). The course asks students to adjust their thinking to encompass the largest scales they have ever considered, like the 13.8 billion year history of the Universe, to some of the smallest scales they have ever considered like how DNA contributes to the evolution of life. This is something that I am very intentional about teaching and practicing in my classroom. When we shift the time and spatial scales at which we examine historical and current problems, it yields new insights and allows us to ask different questions. Thinking across scale in terms of both time and distance helps us to frame our experience at the levels of the individual, family, community, nation, human, and planet.

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My favorite Big History activities that really get at the heart of the issues surrounding scale are “Big History on a Football Field” found in lesson 1.1 and “History of Me” in lesson 1.4. The discussions surrounding how the student’s individual timelines fit into the timeline covering the history of the universe are rich and eye opening. Here, the groundwork is laid for their future understanding of scale.

This course asks students to grapple with the very weighty, sometimes unanswerable questions that are inevitable in content as rich as BHP. When my students feel that they have a good enough understanding of the content to answer it, or at least participate in an intellectual discussion surrounding it, I generally throw them a curve ball and ask them to think about the topic in a different scale. For instance, when a student explains that one early agrarian civilization was stronger than another, I tell them to scale out. It is then possible to discuss the different networks of exchange and trade between world zones, which led to sharing of ideas and technology. Evidence suggests these networks were more robust in Afro Eurasia than they were in the Americas, for example. Then I tell them to scale out more. The discussion might possibly shift to early human migration patterns and how plate tectonics and environmental factors largely influenced where people travelled, settled, how much interaction they had with other groups, and what resources were available. One more request to scale out could yield a discussion about the formation of our planet and how certain metals and other elements were deposited in Earth’s layers. I continuously challenge my students by asking them to think about their answers using different scales.

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Scale is one of the things that makes Big History unique, and it’s a critical skill in historical analysis. Scale in the course is constantly shifting in and out and so should my student’s thinking. This is not a concept they have practiced before and it is not easy to get them to think in this way, but when it happens, it is magical and it is really what the course is all about. When we look at things at different scales we ask different questions, get different answers and involve different disciplines, yet all of it, be it at the universal or atomic scale, contributes to out collective understanding of the world around us.

Feel free to hit me up with any questions in the BHP Yammer community. We are all in this together, and through Yammer we can all get the support we need to bring the best possible experience to our students.

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