THE WONDERMENT OF SCALE

Des Hylton
BHP Teacher, Brisbane, Australia

About the author: Des Hylton is currently teaching Big History in an independent preparatory-through-twelfth-grade school in Australia, but he’s actually a science teacher by trade. At his school, BHP is taught as part of the history/geography curriculum for Year 7 through Year 9 students. Des teaches the class in five 50-minute sessions per two weeks. His average class size is 28.

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Big History on a Football Field class activity

Scale is a concept embedded into our everyday lives, sometimes without us even realizing it. Imagine this scenario: At the start of the year, two of my new Big History students ask me where I’m from, as their intuition tells them I’m not Australian. “I’m from the UK,” may be a sufficient answer for one of them, as he’s fairly unfamiliar with Europe. However, another who, let’s say, has family in the UK or has been there, may not be satisfied with the geographical scale I offered. So another scale, such as the area, city, or even neighborhood is more relevant to this student. Historians have to think long and hard about the scales they are using by asking questions and considering what it is they want to convey. This is made even more complex by the fact history can have many scales of time and space, such as our own personal existence, human existence, and even the existence of the Universe.

Traditionally in history courses, we focus on specific moments in time, whether the rise and fall of civilizations, colonization, war, revolution, or globalization. A consequence of this is that too little emphasis is placed on connecting one big moment to another. The power of the thresholds of complexity identified in Big History lies in the all-encompassing narrative, which allows us not only to begin connecting these events, but also to identify trends. The narrative allows us to work on a smaller scale by focusing on a particular aspect of the story—an object, process, or social construct—then zoom out onto a much bigger scale and look at the way it may have influenced what we call our history.

Salt is a great example of this. With the history of salt, we can suddenly link the arrangement of atoms to the electrical signals and nerve impulses inside every living organism, to the movement of the Roman Empire, to the lexicological development of the word—and even to the concept of salary. Salt brings us to the present and future challenges humanity faces, with fresh water perhaps becoming the most valuable and fought-over resource. Scale allows us to make mindboggling complexities accessible, personal, and engaging.

When we tackle something as enormous as the Universe in terms of time and distance, our students require perspective, and as most teachers know, it isn’t always enough to just tell them. You have to show them. A great way of doing this is the Big History on a Football Field activity:

On a football field, students physically create a timeline showing the eight thresholds of increasing complexity. This kinesthetic learning activity provides an opportunity for numeracy application— and if students wonder why numeracy matters in history, it’s yet another opportunity to prove how many different disciplines are needed to truly study this subject. Most students love the challenge of this activity, and varied collaborative groupings can ensure students can make sense of the data given and apply it to the field in front of them.

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Students working on the BHP scale activity starting with Threshold 1: The Big Bang

When students walk the narrative of the Big History thresholds, they are blown away by how much time—now expressed as distance—has passed between the formation of new chemical elements (Threshold 3) and the formation of Earth and the Solar System (Threshold 4). This often produces questions like: Why did the Earth and Solar System take so long to form? What could possibly have been occurring during this time? Could there have been previous systems before ours, or even life?!

Then their conjecturing really begins.

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Students discussing Thresholds 7, 8, and 9

I’m not going to lie. It is also pretty comical to watch students desperately try to measure out the exact distances for Thresholds 7, 8, and 9 on the field. I mean, on a football field scale, we are talking less than 2 millimeters for Thresholds 7, 8, and 9 to fit into—it’s mind-blowing! It really puts into perspective the relatively insignificant time humans have been on Earth, as compared to living organisms or even the beginning of the Universe. Activities like this also give a rationale for collapsing timelines, as BHP does in their 13.7-billion year infographic, or in a map of your home town, so it can fit neatly into your pocket.

I once used David Christian’s idea of representing the years of the Universe’s existence (13.8 billion) by counting as if each year represented a second. While some students actually attempted to do this, others quickly calculated it would take over 430 years to complete! I think the true power behind scale is the wonderment, curiosity, and overwhelming feeling associated with trying to understand it. Have you ever climbed a mountain, stood at the summit, gazed upon the landscape, and felt incredibly small and overwhelmed, yet full of triumph? To me, one of the challenges as a Big History teacher is to replicate that feeling with scale, by guiding students without losing them along the course’s way.

One thought on “THE WONDERMENT OF SCALE

  1. Pingback: THE WONDERMENT OF SCALE – deshyltonblog

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