Ben Tomlisson, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

Note: This blog post is featured in Session 5 of Teaching Big History, our online training course for new and returning teachers. You can delve even deeper into the topic of causality there!

The Big History Project is a course that looks and feels different from any traditional history course currently out there. Many of us who teach multiple social studies subjects are looking for ways to embed and develop those critical historical thinking skills in our students. Big Historians should be able to think critically and “outside the box”; they should get better at reading and writing skills; and they should also develop an interdisciplinary approach to learning. They should also be able to reason like historians and have skills in areas like causation. How do we challenge students to consider multiple causes of an event or process and reach substantive conclusions on the significance of each cause? How do we frame causation questions in Big History that engage students in the work of a historian: questioning the validity of a cause, considering the role of individuals in causation, and looking at the relationship between causes?

The course’s new lessons on causation help us make these skills explicit in our lessons. The Alphonse the Camel activity in Lesson 5.2 is a great way to engage students in “thinking like a historian.” They’re challenged to produce a multicausal explanation that creates a hierarchy of thinking: Which cause was most important? Which was the trigger? As Big Historians, what if we scale up and look at long-term factors, like the formation of mountain ranges and trade routes? My students used this approach to build causal diagrams of Alphonse’s death. They also made claims based on the importance of one cause over another: If not for the mountains, Frank, or trade, would Alphonse have survived?


A one-humped camel, By Jjron, CC BY-SA 3.0.

At the end of this activity, students are keen to know the correct answer, and here is where the counterintuitive nature of our discipline comes in: there isn’t one! There are multiple valuable causal explanations. Although this can be frustrating for students, we can return to the claim testers and Bob Bain’s measure for causation to test the validity of their explanations.

These new lessons (you’ll find them in Unit 3, 4, 6, and 8) offer explicit opportunities to teach causation, but where can we offer more opportunities for students to learn these skills throughout the course? When telling a sweeping narrative like Big History, it’s critical that students understand the thresholds with their ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions. That’s where we have a great vehicle for developing their causation skills. Once they understand the threshold for a particular event, students can begin to analyze these and make their own claims. They can discriminate between the importance of ingredients or look for the most important Goldilocks Condition as the trigger. I encourage students to add new ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions to each threshold and to question the validity of a Goldilocks Condition. Students then begin to see that understanding causation is based on critical and creative thinking, rather than rote learning.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The lessons on star causation provide opportunities for us to begin teaching this concept earlier in the course. One mistake I made during my first year teaching the course was to approach the prehuman units (Units 2 through 5) as more of a science course, and I concentrated on the rich content within. Instead, try to approach those early units wearing your “historian hat”—you’ll find opportunities for historical thinking throughout. For example, in Unit 4, have students look at the creation of the Earth, and then list all the causes from the Crash Course video: The Solar System & the Earth. Then, have them consider removing some of those causes. Would Earth have been created if not for the collision with an Earth-like planet? Other Big History teachers tell me they love to explore the counterfactual “what if” questions. How would life have been created without plate tectonics? How important was this cause for the creation of life? Do you have an idea regarding causation in Big History? Do you have some favorite counterfactual questions of your own? Post your ideas on Yammer and watch collective learning take hold!

About the author: Ben Tomlisson teaches Big History as a full-year ninth-grade elective at Mount Si High School, WA, where he has taught since 2005. Mr. Tomlisson hails from Manchester, England, and has taught in Japan. He loves that Big History provides the space where he and students can build relationships and ask meaningful questions.



BHP Staff

It’s that time of year again! If you’ve been around awhile, you now expect (and love) it. If you’re new to BHP, get excited. Each year, we take a hard look at existing BHP course content and support materials. We review feedback from teachers and scholars that we’ve collected all year, and then carve out a good chunk of time for implementing suggestions. All in the name of keeping Big History the best course in history.


New materials include Crash Course videos, Investigation writing, and Causality activities.

The changes are enough to keep the course exciting and relevant, but we draw the line at doing anything that would throw veteran BHP teachers for too big a loop. Fear not: any content that appears to have been removed from the course can usually be found in “Other Materials” at the bottom of each unit.

So without further ado, here’s what’s new for the 2017/18 school year! Take a look and let us know what you think in the BHP Online Teacher Community.

Summary of updates (‘cuz scrolling can be hard):

1. Investigations and Investigation writing activities
2. Crash Course Big History videos
3. Causality: A new essential theme!


1. Investigations and Investigation writing activities

Soon after we introduced of BHP Score, our free essay-scoring service, we realized a couple things:

• Writing is hard. Teaching writing is even harder. We need our instructions to do more and align across activities. We also need to mention BHP Score in the lessons themselves.
• Teachers need a writing baseline earlier in the course (enter Investigation 0).

We tackled both issues. The Investigation instructions are still long, but consistent. Students get a better idea of which writing skill they’re working on with each activity. Teachers get better info on how and when to submit for free scoring.

Heads up! We’ve added an “Investigation 0” to the end of the first lesson. It is intended to be administered the first week of school so that you get baseline data on your students’ writing. It is the same essay as “Investigation 2,” and that’s intentional. By having two data points on the same essay (one from the first week of school, and one from a few weeks later), students will be able to see where they’ve grown and where they need to improve. Hopefully, they’ll begin to see writing as a journey of continual improvement. Investigations 6 and 9 are also eligible for evaluation by BHP Score, so students can look forward to clear and consistent feedback on their progress throughout the year.

We’ve developed new activities to better support students with a journey of continual improvement as related to Investigation writing and BHP Score:

• Lesson 1.3: Analyzing Investigation Writing – Thesis/Major Claim and Structure
• Lesson 2.2: Analyzing Investigation Writing—Using Texts as Evidence
• Lesson 3.2: Analyzing Investigation Writing – Applying BHP Concepts
• Lesson 4.3: Revising Investigation Writing – Constructing an Argument
• Lesson 5.3: Revising Investigation Writing – Using Texts as Evidence
• Lesson 6.0: Investigation Writing – Constructing an Argument
• Lesson 7.0: Investigation Writing – Using Texts as Evidence
• Lesson 8.0: Investigation Writing – Applying BHP Concepts
• Lesson 9.1: Investigation Writing – Peer Review

2. Crash Course Big History Season 2

We’ve been watching what you’re watching and Crash Course Big History has been a hit! So we went back to our friends at Crash Course and worked on another season of BHP videos. This year, Emily Graslie (host of The Field Museum’s amazing YouTube series, The Brain Scoop), asks questions, like:

  • Are we in the beginning, middle or end of the story of the Universe? Whoa. Check out Why Cosmic Evolution Matters.
  • Are humans causing the next mass extinction? Also – we often learn about the extinction of the dinosaurs, but why should we also care about an earlier mass extinction of bacteria? Dig in to Why the Evolutionary Epic Matters.

*Note: the new Crash Course Big History series will air on YouTube first, and will be added into the BHP course later this summer. Here’s where the videos will live within the course, once added:

• Lesson 2.1: Why Cosmic Evolution Matters*
• Lesson 3.1: Why Star Stuff Matters*
• Lesson 5.1: Why the Evolutionary Epic Matters*
• Lesson 6.2: Why Human Evolution Matters*
• Lesson 6.3: Why Human Ancestry Matters*
• Lesson 8.1: Why Early Globalization Matters*

*These will air on YouTube, and will be added to the BHP course later this summer.

3. Causality: A new essential theme!

The Big History Project course is all about change. And about helping students learn to describe, analyze, and connect changes that take place over vast expanses of time and space. After just a few lessons, students become adept at using the thresholds of increasing complexity to make sense of the history of the Universe, where we are today, and where we’re going.

But we want students to be able to do more than describe change over time—we want them to be able to evaluate and make claims about the causes and consequences of change in history, science, and the world around them. That’s where causality comes in.

Cause and consequence is critical to the work of historians, scientists—any expert working to better understand the world around us. The analysis is as complex and dynamic as history itself. However, research shows that students typically view change over time as links in a linear chain – that is, the most important cause or consequence is the one closest in time and space.

To help students develop their ability to understand cause and consequence—an important critical-thinking skill—we’ve added four new activities . These activities introduce vocabulary, categories, and techniques that experts use to analyze causality. Students will learn how to identify different types of causes and consequences and map the relationships among them.

Here’s the full list of the new causality activities (our favorite features Alfonse the Camel):

Note: Unit outcomes have been updated to reflect causality. For example, the outcomes for Unit 3 now include: Identify various types of causes and consequences, including short-term, long-term, and triggering events.

We hope you find this addition to your students’ critical thinking tool chest helpful. For more on causality and how you might approach it instructionally, be sure to complete Session 5.1: Causality of our online PD course, Teaching Big History. Who doesn’t love an excuse to hear from Bob Bain?!




Michael Cromie, BHP Teacher
California, USA

I’m a seventh-grade social studies and ELA teacher at a technology magnet middle school in Ventura, California. I’ve been with the district since 2006, but have recently returned to the classroom after a stint as a technology integration specialist at a technology magnet elementary school.

Stepping back into the classroom was very exciting at first since our students are all issued their own netbooks and we learn in a 1:1 environment. However, after a few weeks I was very disappointed with the availability of district-adopted digital curricula and found myself trying to adapt outdated traditional textbook and workbook materials. This process was very time-consuming and was not producing very good results. I was desperate for something to turn the year around. Enter Big History Project.


One of the sixth-grade teachers at my school showed me how she was using some material from Unit 7 of the Big History Project course to supplement her ancient civilizations course, and I was immediately drawn to the multiple Lexile levels available for each article. I teach a mix of readers—from GATE students reading at a 12+ grade level, to general and remedial students reading at a 2nd-grade reading level. I was intrigued and decided to research the BHP course for supplemental reading material.

I quickly saw that BHP is much more than leveled articles and supplemental material—it’s an interdisciplinary and unified approach to teaching history. I decided I would do the “Teaching Big History” training over our fall break so that I could come back and teach the course over the remaining three quarters of our school year.


During the training, I joined a number of very supportive BHP Online Teacher Community groups on Yammer. Our district uses Google’s G Suite for Education so I was specifically interested in the Google Docs group and some wonderful people there who were willing to share their resources. Once I started implementing the course, I realized that I needed to really differentiate for the wide variety of learners I teach. I was able to take the resources on the BHP site, combine them with what I was getting from the teacher community, and cobble together unit after unit with very little time spent outside of the work day. Here we are in Unit 8 already (which aligns nicely with our state content standards) and I’m confident that we will make it through most of the material even though we began in the second quarter.

The best part of BHP has been the cohesiveness of the units and the recurring activity types and routines, such as Three Close Reads, Driving Questions, Claim Testing, and Investigations. I love how the course reinvigorated my teaching, allowing me the opportunity to learn about topics like the Big Bang alongside my students. I also found the various course planners especially helpful. My school is on a block schedule so the one from Bridgette O’Connor was great because it gave me an idea of what was essential, what was necessary, and what could be considered optional.

All in all, I am so thankful that I found this course! It has been very enjoyable to become a “lead learner” with my students as we studied how we are all made from elements that were created from supernova explosions billions of years ago and have been increasing in our complexity and interconnectivity ever since.

About the author: Michael teaches social studies and language arts at the DeAnza Academy of Technology and the Arts – a middle school in Ventura, California. His Big History sections are on a block schedule with 100-minute periods. He started teaching Big History partway through the 2016-17 school year.