Rachel Phillips, BHP Team Learning Scientist
Washington, USA

Note: Rachel led a conversation with BHP teachers about this post in the online BHP Teacher Community. Check it out here for more in-depth conversation about “lead learning” in Big History classrooms!

Whether you’re brand new to Big History or have been involved with the course for years, I think one thing we can probably all agree on is there’s a TON of content in the course. I’m willing to bet that about 99.9 percent of BHP teachers have at some point thought something along the lines of, “What? Are these people insane!? How in the world am I supposed to teach all this stuff?!” It turns out, the idea isn’t for you to teach all this stuff. Instead, you’re supposed to lead the charge in learning all this stuff.

BHP teacher Damian Pawlowski in the classroom. Photo credit and © Amal Bisharat.

The pedagogical approach of “teacher as lead learner” gets tossed around a lot in BHP discussions, and is often used to assuage teachers’ fears of the massive amount of content in the course—a very real issue. However, this teacher as lead learner idea isn’t something that we just made up to make you feel better; it’s actually an approach to teaching that has proven beneficial to student learning and understanding. Some say the idea is borrowed from science education, where there is a lot of research having to do with argumentation and the co-construction of knowledge among students and their teachers when exploring testable, scientific questions. Others say it’s borrowed from elementary education, where teachers sometimes function more as generalists and can’t be expected to know everything.

Regardless of where the term comes from, for Big History, the idea is as follows: you can’t and shouldn’t have subject-matter expertise in everything in this course. However, what you do have – including knowledge of how to ask questions, find information, construct arguments, make and support claims, seek out and develop expertise, provide conceptual frameworks for students – are the tools you need to lead your students on their BHP learning journey.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, as with just about everything else in education, there is a tension that exists that can pull you right out of that lead learner role and into one of two other roles: the sage on the stage or the chaperone. On one end, a teacher can find comfort in the old “sage on stage” role, feeling confident in being the teacher who knows their craft, not showing weakness or a lack of knowledge in front of your students. If you see yourself identifying with this type of teacher, I urge you to try saying, “I don’t know” to your students. I bet a lot of them will respect you for your honesty, and others will identify with you for not knowing everything. And as strange as it might sound, it might even feel empowering to you. As one teacher recently told me when I asked how it felt to finally say that she didn’t know something, her response was, “It was liberating.” A lot of teachers have talked about how they’ve used it as an opportunity to turn their students into more active learners – an “I don’t know” is easily followed up with, “Why don’t you look that up?”

On the other end, a teacher can use the lead learner idea as a license to do very little, acting more like a chaperone than a facilitator, which often points to some level of disengagement on the part of the teacher. Instead of participating in the learning process with the students, our chaperone teacher is more likely to make sure the students are going through the motions (watching videos, filling out worksheets), but is unlikely to spend much time worrying about the development of student understanding and intellectual practices in the classroom. This is especially dangerous in BHP, where the curriculum is well-developed and ready to go, easily allowing a teacher to take a back seat in the learning process. What we find in these classrooms is that over time, students learn and retain less than their peers in classrooms with teachers who take on a more active role, Unsurprisingly, there is less student engagement in those “chaperone” classrooms.

Over the past three years, I’ve been lucky enough to travel around to Big History classrooms and have interviewed over 600 students and their teachers about their experiences with BHP. I’ve also had a chance to observe most of these classrooms. I’ve seen sages on the stage, I’ve seen chaperones, and I’ve seen a LOT of exceptionally awesome lead learners. When asking students about what it’s like to have a teacher that doesn’t know everything, one twelfth-grade student said the this: “I like how they taught it with, like, passion and I also like how some of it was kinda like self-discovery. Like they made us look for it ourselves. So we could be like, oh I know how to find it.”

As we head into the new school year, join me in rethinking how we teach. BHP offers the perfect opportunity to try something new—why not dip your teacher toes into the lead learner pool? Remember, you’re not in this alone: Any fears to share? For those of you who’ve already adopted the lead learner approach, any tips and tricks?

About the author: Rachel Phillips is a learning scientist who develops curriculum and conducts research for the Big History Project. She has taught at the K-12, college, and graduate levels. Rachel was formerly Director of Research and Evaluation at Code.org. Prior to that, she was faculty at the University of Washington and program director for a National Science Foundation-funded research project. She approaches all her work from an interdisciplinary perspective.


  1. This is a candid and scientific evaluation of the Big History Project. I’m impressed that education is an honest collaboration between the student and educator. The educator plays different roles at different times. The BHP points out the need for educational technologies to be both flexible and progressive.

    Liked by 1 person

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