BIG HISTORY: THE RESULTS ARE IN…

Mitch Bickman, BHP Administrator
New York, USA

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Big History Project timeline.

It has been three years since the Oceanside School District began teaching the Big History Project (BHP). Prior to our adoption of this course, we had countless questions about it from key stakeholders (parents, teachers, and administrators). I repeatedly heard questions such as these:

  1. Who should take the course?
  2. How do we integrate science in a meaningful way into social studies?
  3. What will the benefits be of a true-interdisciplinary approach?
  4. Will Big History prepare my students for their state exams?

Over time, our ability to answer these questions has improved, due to our increasing familiarity with the course and the data we’ve collected over the years related to student learning and BHP. However, we have not been able to give a great answer to the fourth question…until now! In the past three years, we have been able to collect evidence that strongly suggests that BHP will not only prepare students for their NY State Global History and Geography Regents exams, but that it will prepare them better than other ninth-grade social studies courses that are offered to students in the district.

But, before I give away the entire story, let me give you some background on how the course developed at Oceanside High School (OHS). Traditionally, in ninth grade OHS students take what we call “Global 9,” which is a mix of global history and geography that covers ancient civilizations to 1750. After the first year of offering BHP, we knew unequivocally that implementing the course was the right decision for our students based on student engagement alone. I have spent time in both BHP and Global 9 classrooms, and the difference between the two is palpable.

It’s hard to describe the feel of our BHP classrooms, but for me and our other teachers, electric is the one word that best captures the climate. There is a special energy and excitement among students that previously did not exist during their study of world history. As any teacher will tell you, student engagement is paramount for success, and often leads to an increase in intrinsic motivation. Big History offers a dynamic and compelling narrative, one that students naturally gravitate toward, that serves as a framework for all knowledge. Student learning no longer exists in a vacuum, but rather it connects to other disciplines in a meaningful and authentic way.

While the engagement and excitement were apparent enough that I felt comfortable offering the course to ALL of our incoming freshman after the first year, I still wanted to see some data that would further support this decision. As a result, my initial question turned into two questions:

  1. Does BHP prepare students for their NY State Global History and Geography Regents exam?
  2. Are the outcomes on the NY State Global History and Geography Regents exams different for students who took BHP, compared to students who took Global 9?

I wasn’t the only one interested in the answers to these questions. At OHS, we’ve hosted dozens of districts who have come to our school to learn more about BHP, and they too have wanted to understand how well the course was preparing students for the Regents exam. If schools in New York and elsewhere are considering adopting Big History, they want to see data that shows student learning. And although BHP has conducted comprehensive studies showing impressive growth in student writing, student engagement, and positive perceptions toward the course, I still wanted to know about my own students. So, I dug into our data.

OHS now has two years of data from the Regents exam, which is taken at the end of students’ sophomore year. As a result, we are now able to answer both our questions with a resounding YES—the BHP course does prepare students for the NY State Global History and Geography Regents exam, and they do even better than their peers who did not take BHP (see Figure 1).

In 2014/15, during their sophomore year, a cohort of 96 students took the BHP course. The following year (2015/16), these 96 students were randomly placed in one of 12 sections (taught by 6 teachers) of Global 2 (a traditional history course that covers 1750 to present). When comparing the BHP students to their non-BHP peers, the BHP students had a 96% passing rate on the June 2016 Regents exam, which means their passing rate was 7% higher than that of their non-BHP peersa sizeable difference. Non-BHP students had a pass rate of 89% (432 out of 483 students passes). Both groups included special education students, English language learners, and those requiring other accommodations.

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2016 Global History and Geography Regents exam. 

The 2017 Regents saw our first full cohort of BHP students (>300, as compared to only 96 students in 2016). The percentage of students who had achieved mastery, that is, students who scored an 85 or higher, jumped from 48% in 2016 to 57% in 2017, an increase of 9%.

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Student mastery on Global Regents exam: 2016 versus 2017.

The reason we chose to look at passing percentage in 2016 and student mastery in 2017 was due to our BHP enrollment. In 2016, 96 of the over 400 students who took the Regents exam were enrolled in BHP the previous year. This allowed us to compare our passing percentages from our 96 BHP students to our 387 non-BHP students. In 2017, all students who took the Regents were enrolled in BHP the year before, which meant we could not parse out the passing percentage; however we could compare mastery year-over-year.

Reflection
While there are numerous variables that can account for the increase in student passing and mastery rates, one must take notice of such impressive gains. Before offering Big History, district mastery rates were stagnant for several years. This past June, the mastery rate increased markedly with a cohort of over 325 BH students taking the Regents. In addition, the school climate has shifted significantly going into our fourth year of teaching Big History. Teachers in physics, chemistry, life science, ELA, and social studies are co-planning lessons, which leads to greater overall collaboration and offers teachers interdisciplinary professional development. As mentioned earlier, there is a marked increase in student engagement, as well as increased intrinsic motivation among students. Our students have become divergent thinkers, more sophisticated questioners, thinkers, and problem-solvers. Districts that are considering Big History as a future course offering should ask themselves one question: Why not Big History?

About the author: Mitch Bickman is the K-12 Director of Social Studies for the Oceanside School District, and taught at Oceanside High School for 10 years. He has worked to build interdisciplinary experiences for teachers and students, partnering with colleagues in ELA and science. He has led the successful implementation of Big History at Oceanside High School, and has helped this program win the NYSEC Program of Excellence and Collaborators of Excellence Awards in recent years.