INTERDISCIPLINARITY: A BIG HISTORY THEME

David Burzillo, BHP Teacher
Massachusetts, USA

Too often, history appears to students as just a list of facts. One event after another, one famous person after another. Students don’t understand what connects these facts and people. They don’t see what they learn in their history classes as a coherent line of inquiry. More important, students often struggle to formulate their own questions and plan their own lines of research into these questions. This is what the new C3 standards here in the U.S. call the “arc of inquiry.” Formulating questions is an essential component of any good history course, and in the Big History Project, developing good questions is always at the forefront of the lessons in each unit.

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In BHP, one of the key strategies we use to help students develop insight into the connections among elements of the course is interdisciplinarity. By looking at ideas and events from the perspectives of a variety of different academic disciplines, new questions and insights open up for students. In each unit, students are introduced to new academic disciplines and they’re asked to learn about the essential questions, methods, and ideas of each of them. In addition, students are asked to integrate content and lessons from the various disciplines in their writing and thinking.

One of my favorite activities comes at the very start of the course. History as Mystery brings students along as a group of scholars try to solve a case of a group of headless bodies unearthed in a Roman cemetery in York, England. As the mystery unfolds, it becomes clear that only by combining the expertise of forensic anthropologists, art historians, archaeologists, and historians, among others, can the full story of these bodies be told. Students must think about the role of each discipline and how it might help to solve the mystery. If you want to read a little more about the History as Mystery activity, check out this post by another BHP teacher (which focuses on how you might adapt the activity to your local context).

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Still from Timewatch The Mystery of the Headless Romans

Asking good questions and drawing on the disciplines is a challenge for most of my students at the start of the year. It’s always interesting to watch students process the material in the History as Mystery activity. When students hear archaeologists describe the cemetery in York, England, as a Roman cemetery, they typically conclude that those buried there must be Romans; but when they hear a little later about the horrific way that many of the dead met their ends, they leap to the opposite conclusion—that these must have been the local enemies of the Romans. Getting students to ask questions and revise their hypotheses without drawing conclusions is a challenge I think all teachers face as they introduce the material in the first few units of the course.

Most students taking Big History are ninth graders who will not yet have taken physics, biology, chemistry, or much history. As a result, great care is taken throughout the course to introduce new disciplines as they become relevant. In Unit 1, for example, the article “Approaches to Knowledge” introduces the general idea of disciplines and the differences among them, providing students with a framework for thinking about the disciplines as they’re introduced. Here, they’re introduced to the general idea that each discipline has a unique set of questions it asks and methods it uses. For my students, one of the most interesting points this article makes concerns the nature of textbooks. Most of my students have never been asked what the purpose of a textbook is or who decides what material is included in it and what is left out. As the course unfolds, students realize that the fact that Big History does not have a textbook allows them greater ownership of the questions of the course and greater responsibility for assessing the evidence they assemble to answer their questions.

Another key activity type for building interdisciplinarity skill is What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? First introduced in Unit 2, and then scattered throughout the course, each of these activities presents students with a significant event for which they must assemble a response team. In my classroom, students first tackled this activity by reading about the recent discovery of a cemetery at Jamestown and the four bodies unearthed there. (No, we don’t just talk about cemeteries in my class!) This activity proved a good complement to the History as Mystery activity, but there was less mystery about who the people were in Jamestown and more questions about their religious affiliations and class, which raised a lot more questions about culture than the History as Mystery activity. Each time this activity recurs during the course, students get a little more sophisticated in the disciplines they choose and, more important, the questions they ask. This is key to the Big History Project; we want to see students leave the course with the ability to use interdisciplinarity to ask better questions and to connect the dots of the course into a coherent picture.

About the author: Dave Burzillo has taught for over 30 years, more than 25 of them at his current school, a private high school in Weston, MA. For the last 7 years, he has taught BHP to ninth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders. His school runs on a trimester system, which gives him about 90 days to cover 13.8 billion years of history in each class. He has 12-16 students in each class. Recently, Dave began offering an online BHP course in the summer.