HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE BIG HISTORY

Todd Nussen, BHP Teacher
New York, U.S.A.

todd-nussen-blog-post

I’ve met many world history teachers who were apprehensive about taking the leap into Big History. That’s a perfectly natural reaction. A first-year teacher might very well find BHP daunting in its scope and complexity, but an experienced world history teacher who has already worked hard to fit a lot of instruction into limited classroom time may have even more anxiety. How are they going to reorganize their tried and true course?

The first six units in the Big History course are vastly different from a standard world history curriculum. You may ask yourself:

  • Can I teach the science content adequately enough?
  • Will learning the scientific components of the curriculum really support my students’ understanding of history?

Yes, and yes. You can certainly support the content that is outside of your area of expertise, and learning the science will improve students’ grasp of history. As educators, it is essential to remember that content delivery must never eclipse skill development and acquisition.

If, like me, you’re a trained teacher of history, you may not relish becoming a science teacher – and the good news is you don’t have to. History is by nature interdisciplinary, so just as a lesson on the Gutenberg press might require some knowledge of mechanical engineering, or teaching about the great explorers would call for some study of celestial navigation, so does Big History’s billions of prehuman years depend on what science has uncovered. A true scientist may think of it differently, but for me, it’s still all history.

Teaching BHP has been an opportunity to develop collaborative relationships with my colleagues in the science department, relying on their help with the “How?” and “Why?” questions while I take care of the “When?” and “What?” questions. Additionally, BHP provides all the resources needed to teach the science-based threshold events of the past 13.8 billion years. Students’ skills of claim testing and document/multimedia analysis become so well developed during the first couple of months of the course that when they start studying human history, the student-centered lessons and activities are remarkably engaging and interesting.

Also, the writing strategies developed during the more science-dependent units become invaluable throughout the school year. When working with my students on the BHP Investigation writing activities—the analysis of texts, the planning associated with writing—I found the questions being asked were far superior to those history teachers traditionally work on with their students during the first months of school.

The world-history-to-Big-History transition reminds me of when I was told I was going to teach economics for the first time. My degree was in history and I had only taken one economics class, a requirement of my education degree. So I did what any new teacher would do—I panicked! Then, after panicking some more, I went back to my old economics books, consulted with my colleagues, and began to craft a scope and sequence for instruction. I was proud of what I put together, but it would have been a lot less work and a lot more fun if I’d had a rich online resource like the BHP website.

In addition to the activities and readings that can be found in BHP, another incredibly helpful resource to new and seasoned BHP teachers is the Teacher Community on Yammer. Yammer offers BHP teachers across the globe the opportunity to share ideas and collaborate virtually.

In the end it comes down to this: I have consistently found—in my own classroom and in the classrooms of my world history colleagues—that we have been able to deliver a more engaging and dynamic course for students through the lens of Big History. Students are more motivated to learn, they have richer dialogue in class, and most impressively their conversation—and their learning—extends to nearly all their other classes and to their lives outside school as well.

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