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

The Big History Project course has over 80 short videos that capture short, engaging lectures by compelling and entertaining speakers – such as David Christian and John Green. It is easy to fall into the trap that these videos are self-explanatory, that learning from them is effortless. All students must do is sit back and enjoy.

The History of Everything

This is not the case. Teachers need to show students how to read videos carefully and critically. And, unlike written text that students can go back to and reread or puzzle over, videos move so fluently that it is often difficult for students to pause or go back a few seconds to review.

It is important to remember to treat videos as you would any text, making sure that students know why they are viewing the video and what they should be attending to as they watch it.

There are four steps in engaging students with the BHP videos:

1. Set the purpose
To start, you should begin each video by posing a question to the students and asking them to think about how this video helps in answering it. Some if not all the BHP videos begin with questions that make for good short discussion before showing the video. For example, a video in Unit 4 asks, “What was the young Earth like?” – a great prompt for a student quick-write or short discussion.

What Was the Young Earth Like?

2. Establish points to discuss
After setting the purpose, make sure students know what they are supposed to be doing or thinking about while watching the video. It’s useful to establish a few things for students to identify for discussion afterward, with the class.

You might establish a video routine where students are always searching for:

  • the video’s main point
  • confusing places in the video
  • interesting points in the video
  • how the video supports or challenges other texts in the course

Before watching, students might create four columns or boxes labeled “Main Ideas,” “Confusing Points,” “Interesting Points,” and “Supports or Challenges Text,” and use the video’s time stamp and a phrase to mark points for later discussion.

Or, you might want to use prompts specific to each video. The questions listed on the video transcripts are particularly useful if you alert students to them in advance.

3. Watch the video more than once and/or use the written transcript
All of BHP’s videos are complicated, and all are interesting and enjoyable. Therefore, you should plan on encouraging – or requiring – students to view the videos more than once, adding something more to the second viewing than the first.

For example, before the second viewing, give students the transcript and ask them to read it, marking the main points, confusing sections, and interesting points worth further discussion. Then show the video again.

Or, you could have students watch the video a second time with the “Pause at Key Points” button clicked on. The video will halt at key places, giving students time to write or giving the class time to discuss.

In a sense, these practices are the video version of the three close reads that BHP urges for most texts in the course.

4. Discuss each video
The discussion should begin with students’ thinking about the main ideas, and cover the confusing and interesting points in the video. Then, ask students what else supports or challenges the ideas presented in the video.

Another good practice during the discussion is to ask students how the speaker supported their claims. Did they offer any evidence? Was there a logical explanation for the claim? Did they seem to use intuition or reference authority? Or did the speaker assume their authority would be enough to support their claims? You might even show the video one last time, asking students to focus only on claim testing.

Many teachers use the videos to flip the classroom. However, it is quite important to remember that your students will need a clear set of purposes before watching the videos outside of class, and therefore it is important to make the time in class to prepare them for the work outside of class.

Of course, depending upon your students’ access to the course website outside of class, flipping the classroom this way may not be appropriate.

About the author: Bob Bain is a professor of educational studies and history at the University of Michigan. Bob was working on the Big History Project even before it began—that is, even before the BHP pilot launched in six schools in the US and three in Australia. A former high school teacher who has spent more than 25 years in secondary classrooms, Bob studies teaching and learning history and the social sciences by studying teachers teaching and students learning history and other “stuff.”

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