LAUNCHING YOUR FIRST LITTLE BIG HISTORY: SOME TIPS

Bob Bain
Big Historian,
Professor of History & Educational Studies,
University of Michigan

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Example of student LBH: Wooly Mammoths

BHP Expert Post

I recently received an e-mail from a 9th grade BHP student asking me for some tips on doing her Little Big History. I thought I would share her note and my response.

She wrote:

Hello Mr. Bain, I am a student in the Big History course, and we were just given the rubric to the ‘little big history’ project for the year. So to get a head start, I was looking online at projects from past years. I was wondering if there were any tips or ideas or any advice at all you could possibly give me looking forward on this project?

And I responded:

Great question.  I think there are “big” steps in doing a “little” big history.

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Thresholds of Increasing Complexity

1.) Ask big questions at each threshold to guide your research:
All history begins with questions and the LBH project is no different. A good way to begin this project is to pose some research questions—questions you’re curious about—at each of David Christian’s Thresholds of Increasing Complexity. Let’s work through an example with a topic that is of interest to me, coffee. I start with the last threshold and work my way back.

  • Threshold 8 – Modern Revolution: Over the last 150 years, what were the most important changes in how coffee has been grown, distributed, and brewed?
  • Threshold 7 – Agriculture and the Agrarian Age: When did people first begin to grow coffee for consumption and distribution? How and why did this change from this beginning until 1800 or when the Modern Revolution began? How did humans around the world develop a taste for this bitter drink? When and why did it become most popular?

By the way, I give a short video explanation of just those changes in coffee at http://www.gatesnotes.com/Education/Bob-Bain-Big-History-of-Coffee

  • Threshold 6 – Collective Learning: How did humans share and expand their knowledge of coffee growing, its impact on humans, and ways to brew it over time, even if our earliest ancestors probably did not drink coffee?
  • Threshold 5 – Life: How did the coffee plant evolve? What explains why its bean is so bitter? Could the bitterness evolve over time as a survival trait? How does it affect humans and animals?
  • Threshold 4 – Formation of Solar System and Earth: Why does coffee grow well in the tropics and not well in places like Ann Arbor, where I live?  What kind of temperature and climate does the coffee plant need and why is that temperature and climate best found in the tropics? How did Earth’s formation impact coffee?
  • Threshold 3 – Elements: What are the chemical elements in coffee?  Where do they come from? How did these elements get into the coffee bean?

Now at both Threshold 2 (Stars Light Up) and Threshold 1 (Big Bang), I don’t think I could come up with any good questions related to my interest in coffee. And so, I would not try to force my research back to those thresholds.

2.) Look for answers to your questions, taking notes on what you find:
Try to answer these questions using books, journals, or possibly interviewing experts on your topic. Make sure to take notes on what you’re learning and link your notes both to your big questions and to the source (e.g., book, web, person) of the information.

Note: Remember to look for the ways people support their claims, not just what they write or what they say. Use the claim testers!

I always pay attention to how the books, journals, internet and the people I investigate support their claims. Why? Simply because I want to use the best and most trustworthy claims I can find. So, I always ask, “Are my sources supporting their claims using intuition, logic, authority or empirical evidence?” Claim testing is a very important skill that BHP teaches. I use it regularly and think you should as well.

3.) Regularly write notes to yourself or tell others what you’re learning about your topic:
Don’t wait until you have to write your final paper to figure out what you think about your topic. Write regular memos or notes to yourself. After you read or talk with a new source, take a few minutes to explain to yourself what you’ve learned. Try to do this each week. Let classmates, friends or parents review them. Doing this informally and regularly will make it easier for you to figure out what you know and don’t know about your topic—and it will make writing the final paper or presentation a lot easier. 

4.) Finally, put all of it together to tell a good story that answers the big questions about your topic:
Did you notice how all the videos and most of the essays in the Big History Project begin with big questions and sets out to answer those questions? I think that is a good way to go about presenting your finished product. Try starting your paper or presentation with the big questions you want to answer for your audience. Try also to figure out what is the best way to answer those questions and teach others what you have learned. It might take a few drafts to arrange your findings so you can tell a well-supported and engaging story. Make sure to explain why your topic is important, significant or just plain interesting.

And remember, it is ok and, in fact, it is important to let your audience know the claims you think are well supported by authority, logic and empirical evidence—and those that are not so well supported or only rely on intuition. You might even include questions you asked that still don’t have good answers.

One final tip: Have fun!
Unlike research students (and teachers) have done in other history classes, your LBH is going to be different and original. Few students have looked at the history of anything across so much time and used so many disciplines, such as chemistry, biology and physics, to tell the story. So, have a good time. Remember: you are contributing to our collective learning.

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Example of student LBH: Alkaline Batteries

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