Jillian Turner, Big History Teacher
With the deadline for NSW Education Standards Authority School Developed Board Endorsed courses looming on April 7, I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about one example of what my students and I have gained from taking and teaching the Big History Project course.
The chief aim of any teacher is to equip our students to think. In an age of “fake news” and conflicting truths, the significance of logical, reasoned argument and critical thinking is painfully apparent. We can often, however, find that a crowded curriculum worries out these loftier aims. The pressure to ensure our students cover the content for each topic in order to pass an exam can be more immediate than any long-term gains.
In my year 10 (or tenth grade, is Americans call it) history elective class this week I had an experience that inspired me to try harder to incorporate critical thinking into all of my lessons. I’m teaching BHP as my Year 10 course, and I had just introduced my students to one of its key ideas—claim testing. Briefly, claim testing gives students a scaffold to measure the claims that they’ll encounter throughout the course. They use four “claim testers”—intuition, logic, authority, and evidence—to assess claims. My students looked at Easter Island as a case study in examining claims. We explored different explanations for what caused the population of the island to collapse.
As students reviewed the sources I provided, they made the conclusion I see regularly: they believed the most recent source without considering that it was the age of the source and not its merits that was swaying them. But then one student stopped and asked her group, “Who is this guy? What authority does he have?” They began to look more closely at the author of the source, Jared Diamond, and the more they looked the more questions they asked. They drew on a previous lesson on the use of different scales in history to discuss the merits of his approach and to consider whether the purpose of his text (explaining the rise and fall of civilizations) might have influenced the evidence he chose to use in his explanation.
The ensuing discussion was genuinely exciting. The class didn’t make any conclusions, they discussed back and forth until the bell, but their awareness of the way they approached knowledge gave them the language to engage in an intellectually challenging debate about the relative merits of Jared Diamond’s text and the impact of his environmental message on his interpretation of the history of Easter Island. I left the lesson with the sense that my students had done something important that day. They had internalized the model of critical thinking that the Big History course introduced them to and they were applying it without my intervention.
Explicitly teaching students how to think critically and then giving them opportunities to practice this skill is at the heart of Big History. I am increasingly enthusiastic about using this course to teach my students to think so that they move into the world equipped to judge a claim wisely on its merits. This ability will be far more important than any content I might teach and will produce results across the entire curriculum.
Australian teachers, please note: Big History is approved as a NSWESA School Developed Board Endorsed Course for 100 and 200 hour Stage 5 and 1 Unit Preliminary. For further details visit: http://bighistoryinstitute.org/big_history_project/#bostes.
About the author: Jillian Turner has taught history since 2007 and BHP since 2013 at both public and private secondary (high) schools in Sydney, Australia. Her school year lasts 40 weeks and she teaches the year-long BHP course to about 30 students per year.