“New Orleans, Louisiana montage” by Infrogmation (talk). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Have you ever found yourself explaining your passions and enthusiasms to other people? Well, I have.
Indeed, over the last five years I have explained my excitement about big history and the Big History Project to different audiences in multiple venues, literally across the globe. I have talked to teachers, administrators, parents, students, historians, scientists, and the public at large at conferences and workshops, in classrooms and offices, on the radio, the internet and over the phone, and through newspaper articles and publications.
I’m about to give another talk at the National Council for the Social Studies on Friday November 13, and thought I could take a few minutes to rehearse with you, my fellow BHP friends.
So why big history?
In 1991 David Christian explained that “big history” was “the exploration of the past on all these different scales, up to the scale of the universe itself.” Thirteen years later he explained this intellectual journey “persuaded us that beneath the awesome diversity and complexity of modern knowledge, there is an underlying unity and coherence . . . an astonishing power to any story that attempts to grasp reality whole.”
In those few sentences, David both explains what makes his history “big” and why it is an important and necessary intellectual project. Certainly the almost six million viewers of David’s TED talk offers evidence for the “astonishing power” of this story.
As a teacher in public schools for over forty years, twenty-six of them in a public high school, I think big history’s effort to help students make meaning of the fragments and pieces of the “stuff” they encounter in their schools and daily lives is critical. David’s compelling origin story is generative since it can help students make connections among and between other stories vying for their attention.
However, despite its elegance and coherence, or likely because of its elegance and coherence, for students and teachers this story alone is not enough. If it were, then David’s TED talk or his video lectures would be sufficient for our students.
What makes the Big History Project so important is the value it has added to make big history so accessible and effective for students in so many different schools.
So, why the Big History Project?
Teachers understand that no story, even a story well told, is automatically accessible to students. Nor can a story, even a compelling one, automatically help students deepen their thinking, enhance their reading and writing skills, challenge their misconceptions, entice them to become active learners, help them build connections across content, or develop their capacity to become critical consumers of knowledge. Nor can any story automatically support teachers in achieving such goals for their students.
BHP was created to grapple with these instructional questions. And BHP’s design partners—teachers actively teaching, refining and sharing their teaching—have made a self-improving curriculum to effectively manage each of those challenges.
Simply put, BHP goes beyond helping students learn a big history narrative. It provides students the opportunities to actually do big history. It invites them to join into the intellectual work of asking big and important questions, seeking out evidence to analyze and evaluate, and then apply historical and scientific concepts to develop their own narratives, arguments and explanations. And BHP, through its active community of teachers and scholars, provides teachers with the resources, activities, and support needed to fit the curriculum to their specific context.
Over a very short time, BHP has demonstrated its ability to help enhance adolescent literacy, keep learners engaged, support under-resourced schools, and provide effective, just-in-time professional development. I do not have enough space to list all the ways BHP has accomplished this, though the investigations, lexile-leveled texts, consistent instructional routines, and a vibrant and dynamic community of teachers focused on student learning are among the most important.
The main reason I am so enthusiastic about BHP is the improvements we are seeing in students’ writing and the praise and criticism we are getting from teachers—criticism that enables BHP to continue to improve.
And, why now?
As a historian, I have some ideas to explain why at this moment in time large scale projects like big history and BHP are becoming so popular but you will have to wait for another blog post.
Or, come to my session at NCSS 2015 in New Orleans, Why Big History? Why Now? The Case for Adding a “Big” Picture and Literacy Practices to History, Friday November 13 at 3:20 p.m. in the Ernest N. Memorial Convention Center Room 211.
Also look for the Big History Project team, fellow teachers, free posters and more at Booth 805 in the exhibit hall. Can’t make it? Keep your eye on blog.bighistoryproject.com and follow us on Twitter (@BigHistoryPro) for live posts from the conference.