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.

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