Scott Henstrand, BHP Teacher
New York, USA

The following activity was developed by BHP teacher Scott Henstrand for his classroom. Please use as is or adapt as you see fit! Scott’s student materials are also available. Read more about Scott at the end of this post.

Making and testing claims is one of the fundamental skills in Big History. This skill is essential to understanding the continuous unfolding and modification of the Big History narrative. With so much still in the dark—“What came before the Big Bang?” “What are the details of the Big Bang itself?”—the narrative is never complete. In this activity, you will explore in groups the use of claim testers by investigating a box containing unknown materials and using your senses as empirical evidence to make claims about the items in the box.

Mystery box, by PDPics. CC0 Public Domain.

-One box per group of three or four students. The box is made from a 9x9x9-inch corrugated cardboard box. Put in three to five items such as a clothes pin, a wooden or Styrofoam ball, and a paper clip. Vary the items in the boxes. Tape shut with duct tape.
-One Mystery Box Observations Worksheet per student

Begin the exercise with a story of some sort that gives an aura of mystery to the boxes. Tell students that they are being challenged to use the four BHP claim testers to test claims on what is inside the boxes. Have students hand out the boxes, one per group. Let them explore the boxes and make claims based on logic and the evidence. Instruct them to make sure they jot down evidence and claims on their Mystery Box Observations worksheet.

Next, have students share their findings. Have them state their claims and defend them with claim testers. During this process, students will probably ask you, as an authority, to tell them what items are in the boxes. Don’t do it! Continue the process of sharing and claim testing. Another question that may emerge is whether or not the boxes contain the same items. This should be an opening to speak about scale. The contents can be looked at in the scale of one box or the scale of, say, nine boxes.

The last prompt is to state that you have one more Mystery Box to share. Build up to this and then point to your head and ask, “What’s inside this mystery box? What am I thinking?” Have another round of claims and claim testers.

At the end of the class, when the students expect you to reveal the contents of the boxes, leave them wondering by telling them, “You will never find out exactly what is contained in the boxes, as we will never be completely sure of the Big History story.”

By the way – I’ve uploaded a video of my class at work on this activity in the BHP online community.

About the author: Scott Henstrand has been teaching Big History at Brooklyn Collaborative Studies, a public school in New York, since 2011. His school offers the course as a two-year deployment that replaces global studies. In the first year, Unit 1 through Unit 6 are covered; in the second year, Unit 6 through Unit 10. Scott loves teaching the course because of the fundamental philosophical implications of the material.

2 thoughts on “The Mystery Box

  1. Scott, when you first described this activity during a BHP training in Seattle a few years ago, I loved it so much that I started doing it on the first day of class, not just in Big History but in US History as well. It’s a great way to get students thinking, collaborating, and considering what it means to be a (big) historian. Integrating the activity with claim testers is exciting, although I wonder about doing that on the first day. Now I have to decide whether to continue using this on the first day next year, wait until 2.2 when they’ve been introduced to claim testers, or do it on the first day and revisit again later. Thanks again for the great lesson idea!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s