Casey Lever, BHP Teacher
Like everyone’s interaction with BHP, mine is evolving. But unlike a lot of the incredibly switched-on people who teach Big History, it takes me time to learn new things. Recently, I’ve begun to pay attention to the BHP Exchanges, reading them and even participating in a couple. In case, like me, you weren’t aware that these events were taking place, I should explain that an Exchange is an official monthly opportunity for Big History teachers to interact with a visiting expert in the online BHP Teacher Community. Guest experts typically provide an article they’ve written about a specific topic relevant to Big History, and then respond to questions posted by teachers over the days that follow.
I’m sure that sounds worthy and educational. But it’s actually a lot more than that. Just consider: One random evening, sitting at my desk here in suburban Queensland, Australia, I got to ask Dr. Bryan J. Mendez, astronomer and public education specialist at Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, a question about the value of space exploration for the human race. Wow. I’m not sure what other people think, but that seems like an amazing thing to be doing with my time.
There was definitely a nerdy kind of thrill in posting a question and getting an answer from a genuine expert, and I encourage you to try it and see what I mean. Since that evening, though, I sense that there are more reasons for why it is something good to be doing.
We are living through sharp times. Right now, it feels like the assumptions of scholarship that underpin Western civilization are under attack from all sides. Objective reality doesn’t seem to be rating as highly as it used to. Those with strong opinions and intuitions, even if based on fallacies or distortions of truth, seem to have become influential. Being skeptical about absolutely everything is all the rage. Indeed, logic and reason and the authority of those with genuine expertise are frequently dismissed, while the politics of rage holds all of us in its fierce and fascinating grip.
It’s a big claim, that posting questions to an expert on Yammer is to fight for the rightful place of experts at the heart of scholarship, but that’s exactly what it feels like to me.
Being able to test my understanding with those who apply all their intellectual rigor to profound questions is a privilege that I really want to take advantage of. After three years of teaching this course, knowledge doesn’t feel like a noun any more. It feels active, not static, and raises all sorts of “doing” words in my mind, like probing and questioning, interrogating and connecting. My awareness of the constructedness of knowledge has been heightened, and I realize that textbooks and other written documents are only the beginning of learning.
But it’s not just about me. I’m also modeling what I want my students to do and how I want them to think. When I inserted my interaction with Dr. Mendez into classroom conversation this week, a small and insignificant moment became a big and powerful moment. Twenty-four fifteen-year-old young women heard that it was standard practice to communicate with a leading astronomer and think of interesting things to ask him. What would you have asked? I wanted to know. They had plenty of ideas. And so, next time I will ask my students what to ask before the Exchange. I’ve seen other teachers do just that, and now I’ve realized why.
Participating in the Exchanges is not just about Big History teachers and our students. Academics are well aware that it’s important for them to engage with the community. A compellingly titled recent article, “How Universities Can Earn Trust and Share Power in the Bitter Post-Truth Era” (Roberts & Becker, 2017), has made this very point, arguing “it has always been incumbent on … experts to engage with the public – to share knowledge and to ensure that the way in which knowledge is being driven forward benefits as many people as possible.” Big History Exchanges offer academics an opportunity to reach out to those of us working with young people and engage and influence what we know and talk about in the classroom.
So next time you are thinking about participating in an Exchange, go ahead. To read, to consider, to comment, to ask: these things might seem small but in fact you are doing big, important work. You are a conduit for providing our students access to a source of cutting-edge disciplinary knowledge; you are modeling to them how our understanding of complexity is deepened; and you have become a vital part of the process of collective learning.
Roberts, A., & Becker, S. (2017, May 4). “How Universities Can Earn Trust and Share Power in the Bitter Post Truth Era.” Retrieved from The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/how-universities-can-earn-trust-and-share-power-in-the-bitter-post-truth-era-76653.
Note: The next BHP Exchange will span September 6th-8th and feature Learning Scientist Rachel Phillips. Rachel recently wrote us a blog post on the power of Lead Learning. Her Exchange will focus on questions you have related to implementing a “lead learner” stance in your BHP classroom!
About the author: Casey teaches Big History at Ipswich Girls Grammar School in Queensland, Australia, where she is also the Head of Department of Humanities. This is her third year teaching BHP, which runs as a semester-long core history/science subject for students in years 9 and 10 at her school. She enjoys the opportunity BHP gives her to learn more about science alongside her students, as well as the course’s emphasis on the big issues confronting all humans.