David Burzillo
BHP Teacher Leader, Massachusetts, U.S.A.


Detail of a visualization of the various routes through a portion of the Internet. By the Opte Project – Originally from the English Wikipedia; description page is/was here. CC BY 2.5

We live in the information age, so named because the ubiquity of the Internet, social media, cable, and satellite television and radio, have caused humans to face a constant flood of information. And that flood is likely to increase. According to Dr. Martin Hilbert, an assistant professor of communication at UC Davis, the average human received about 40 newspapers’ worth of information per day in 1986; by 2007 that number had risen to 174 papers per day. What a staggering amount of information! How is it possible for one person to process all this information—to sort the important from the trivial, the true from the false—and leave time for anything else? This is an important question for all people to ponder, and it’s an important question in the Big History course as well.

In Big History, students confront their own flood of new information, albeit on a smaller scale, presented in a variety of media and concerning academic disciplines about which they may have no background. How does the Big History course help students assess all this information? One way is by weaving the essential skill of making and testing claims into each unit of the course. Even with an understanding of claims and how to test them, it’s not possible for anyone to test every claim they come across each day; however, having solid claim-testing skills will allow students to successfully evaluate claims in their own and others’ thinking and writing when they choose to.

Claim testing is introduced by Bob Bain in the video How Do We Decide What to Believe?, which both defines the idea of a claim and presents the four claims testers that will be used throughout the course: intuition, logic, authority, and evidence. The idea of claim testing is reinforced later in the lesson in a humorous way in the first of a series of four comics created by Larry Gonick, whose characters represent each of the four claims testers. Claim-testing activities in a number of other units ask students to evaluate important claims about topics from the Big Bang to collective learning by judging whether statements are true, false, or more information is needed.

Over the years, I’ve developed some claim-testing practices of my own that have worked well for my students. This past year, I had students listen to selections from Orson Welles’s radio broadcast War of the Worlds. The ensuing discussion about why so many people accepted this radio drama’s claim that Earth was under Martian attack really engaged students in the exploration of the relevance of claim testing. I also like to ask students to claim test some of the big ideas of the course to further hone their skills. In Unit 2, for example, once we’ve finished discussing the characteristics of the Ptolemaic view of the Universe, I ask my students to claim test the idea. How did intuition, logic, authority, and evidence confirm for the average person that this view of the Universe was true? This exercise not only reinforces the content of the unit, but also reinforces the claim-testing skills students are engaged in learning. Especially in these early stages of the course, it’s important to establish good habits that students can build upon later.

Do you have any great claim-testing activities of your own? Please share them with the Big History Teacher Community—we’re all ears.


Ben Tomlisson
BHP Teacher, Washington, U.S.A.


A reconstruction of Homo naledi. National Geographic

One of the challenges of teaching Big History, as with all social studies and science subjects, is how we as teachers introduce students to new research and current controversies. Although this may be hard work, it’s an invaluable tool in helping students see the relevance of the course. But what’s the best way to integrate a current issue into BHPs concepts and framework?

The recent discovery of Homo naledi offered a great opportunity to practice fitting a contemporary issue into the BHP curriculum at the same time that we emphasize the course’s relevance to today’s world. We’re in Unit 6 and studying the development of humans, but what angle should we take in introducing Homo naledi? One approach is to center on the often-neglected claim testers.

When introducing a news story like the recent Homo naledi discovery, it’s important to have a reliable, accessible article or source for the kids to analyze. I built my activity around National Geographic’s summary of the discovery of Homo naledi.  A bonus to using this article is that it provides an opportunity to discuss the validity of the source, as it was National Geographic that sponsored Berger, who plays an important role in the discovery.

On the lesson’s first day, I introduced the article to the kids, using the “What do you know? What do you ask?” activity. I showed the image of the cave taken from the website (see below) and asked the students: “Who would you bring with you on this expedition and what questions would you ask?” Students should have some knowledge of the different disciplines by this unit, but to help those struggling, I included a list of professions and disciplines that they could choose from. Students enjoyed competing with each other to put together the best team for the expedition and I gave away a Big History Project poster and notebook to the winning team.


Jason Treat, NGM Staff; NGM Maps Source: Lee Berger, Wits

Some students who presented were also keen to try out the cave tunnel for themselves so we re-created the 10-inch gap of Superman’s Crawl. Students had fun trying to get through it.

Modeling the Superman crawl

Modeling the Superman crawl


Student gets help with the Superman crawl

The student responses were varied and creative. For their experts, students included everyone from anthropologists to speleologists to journalists. I encouraged students who  were struggling to do some backward planning, suggesting that they think about the questions they would ask once they got to the cave, and then think about who would be best able to answer them.


What do you know? Who do you ask?



Who would you bring with you on this expedition?

The second day’s lesson was spent looking at the links between this discovery and the Big History narrative. The driving questions for this activity were:

  1. Homo naledi: is this the “missing link” in our evolutionary story?
  2. What claim testers can we use to answer this question?

The National Geographic article is rich in content. We started by playing the short Nova video promo of the discovery and discussing the following questions:

  • How much evidence was taken from the cave system?
  • Why was this a race against time?
  • Why was access difficult?
  • How did the fossils get there and why is this significant?

I divided students into groups and had them look for specific content within the National Geographic piece and other relevant articles I had found. I gave each group a set of questions to answer when looking at their assigned content. Students used a graphic organizer to record their answers. When they were finished, the groups presented their ideas to the rest of the class.

Next, I asked students to complete a report for the 2016 Paleoanthropological Conference, focusing on whether Homo naledi is the missing link and if not, suggesting where it fits in our evolutionary story. Students worked in groups to complete either a two-page magazine/journal style report or an infographic that answered a series of key questions built around the claim testers. I provided a rubric that placed an emphasis on their application of the claim testers. Some students were confused by what was meant by the term missing link, so we discussed this using the Big History timeline I had annotated (see image below). Students had to produce their own timeline as part of their report.


Updating the Big History Timeline

In their presentations and papers, students provided some reflective and analytical responses. For example, one group took the “braided stream” interpretation of evolution to argue that Homo naledi was a modern cousin of Homo sapiens who became extinct because of their small brain size.

All groups were comfortable using evidence to prove their arguments, but less secure in using the other claim testers. For a quick review, we took another look at the How Do We Decide What to Believe? video, Bob Bain’s introduction to claim testers in Unit 2. Many then understood how Berger’s discovery had challenged the existing authority of East African evolution. The job of placing Homo naledi on the evolutionary timeline gave students an appreciation of the scale of our recent evolution, forcing them to see how our recent evolution fits on the Big History timeline.

This “Ways of Knowing” activity really engaged the students and I encourage you to try using it in other scenarios. Perhaps the discovery of a life on an exoplanet (Units 4 and 5), or a new civilization (Unit 7).This activity was also a great way of exposing students to the multidisciplinary nature of Big History. Who knows? Maybe one of my students will aspire to be the next great paleoanthropologist!


Student work sample


Student work sample


Kira Sampson
BHP Teacher, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


Close-up view of a Hawaiian pan pizza, by @joefoodie, CC BY 2.0.

We (four classes of year 9 at a private girls school) have used the Little Big History (LBH) project as the culminating activity of the course for three years now, and the students continue to pursue their chosen objects with enthusiasm and a great deal of creativity. Our approach to the project still closely matches the original design and the current iteration on the Big History website, but experience has helped us both streamline the process and prompt deeper thinking from the students.

As in the original task, we start by placing the students in groups in which they decide on a group object. This year, the objects range from chocolate, to mirrors, to diamonds, to pizza, to disease, to books, to the board game Monopoly, among others. To finalize their group object decision, students prove to me that there is ample research from different disciplines—by doing a book hunt in the library and an online hunt on the databases.

Students then create their own individual focus question about the group object. The style of these focus questions has evolved this year. In the past, we simply used “The LBH of <their object>” or the general question, “How did the <object> come to be?” as the focus, and then wrote research questions (see the LBH–Research Questions activity in Lesson 7.2) However, this general approach made it difficult for students to focus their essays and create clear links among the different thresholds they had chosen. This year, we’ve had a lot of success—and fun—using very specific focus questions, which we pose in informal terms.

Students exploring pizza as their object have questions like:

  • Why do we eat Hawaiian pizza?
  • Is pizza more delicious now than in the past and if so, why?

While the Chocolate Group is asking questions such as:

  • How did we end up eating chocolate every day?
  • Why do we have entire stores dedicated to just selling chocolate?
  • Why is chocolate both amazing and awful? [a reference to child labor]

And the Book Group is answering these types of questions:

  • Why do people love reading books?
  • Why are written words so important?
  • Why do books look the way they do?

This technique of questioning is working really well for the students, as they both give them a focus and also differentiate their approach from the others in their group. They also love the element of child-like questioning involved in the informal language and have said that they find it easier to really understand their question. The questions themselves, however, are very challenging!

Next, students choose three thresholds of increasing complexity and write two to three focus questions for each threshold. Here’s an example of student planning at this stage:

Focus Question: Why do some  modern humans want a “rock” on their finger?

Thresholds Disciplines Research Questions
Earth & the Solar System Geology
  • How are diamonds formed?
  • Where are diamonds found and how easy are they to mine?
Agricultural Civilizations Archaeology
  • Did any agricultural civilizations use rings or diamonds for symbolism?
  • What evidence have archaeologists found of diamond mining?
  • How were marriages celebrated or represented in agricultural civilizations?
  • When did the use of diamond rings originate and how did it spread?
The Modern Revolution Sociology History
  • Why has the diamond ring become so prestigious in ‘Western’ society?
  • Are diamond rings used the same way in other cultures?
  • Why are diamonds so closely linked to the idea of engagements/marriage?
  • How are synthetic diamonds changing the way we feel about diamond rings?

After they’ve written their essays,  students go back to their groups, read each other’s work, and then create a narrative presentation to tell a wider story of their group’s object. These presentations are made to their parents on our “LBH Afternoon,” which also serves as a celebration for their hard work during the year.

I know other schools are doing their projects quite differently, but this approach is working well for us. No doubt our projects will continue to evolve and change as we reflect and hear about other great ideas.