Hayden George, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

Like most teachers just starting out with Big History, I did so with minor trepidation. But with each passing day, as I saw students make connections between thresholds and current events, any reluctance I had vanished. In just the first few months, Big History has taught my students that not only is it okay to question claims and sources – it’s necessary!

Claim testing, in this era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” has been the most relevant historical thinking skill (and life skill!) my class has practiced. Its use is recognized by most of my students. While we were covering Threshold 5, as my students worked on the assignment “Claim Testing – What Is Life?,” I experienced a classroom revolt. The third claim was “All living things reproduce.” Students’ responses as they worked in groups was visceral. This is their story.

“That’s just simply not true!” one student proclaimed.

“Of course it is! They have to [reproduce] to survive!” another responded.

The debate had begun. My students had started developing their own claims while claim testing, and they were even backing up their arguments.

“Mules can’t reproduce. Aren’t they living things?” one student asked another.

“Some people are born without the capability to reproduce. Does this make them a nonliving thing?” another student asked.

Gradually, as conversations mellowed and students finished the worksheet, we came together as a class to discuss – and I really wanted to discuss this claim. Students shared the evidence they provided to their peers. As I pushed their thinking with a very “teachery” response, “Well, the claim is asserting that all naturally occurring life has the capacity to reproduce,” I realized that I couldn’t argue with their evidence. Mules can and have occurred naturally. I certainly would never tell another human they aren’t alive because they lack the capacity to reproduce! And yet, according to the teacher copy of the assignment, this claim was true.

With Big History as the catalyst, students made claims, supported them with evidence, and concluded that the phrasing of this claim was incorrect. And they convinced me. This is Kentridge High School calling out Big History – we are ready to combat claims that we are told are true, and we have the evidence! Needless to say, all my trepidation about Big History is…well…ancient history.

About the author: Hayden has been teaching at Kentridge High School in Kent, Washington, since 2016, and is teaching BHP for the first time. He teaches two sections of the course and also teaches several sections of US history. At Kentridge, all freshmen take BHP, which is a taught as a year-long course that meets every day.

Cover image: “Mules can’t reproduce. Aren’t they living things?” Public domain.

One thought on “Classroom Report: Claim Testing, Unleashed

  1. Very interesting, and good on the students for finding that loophole. I would answer the students by saying that yes, the collection of cells known as a mule cannot reproduce another mule, but the cells tat make up the mule go on reproducing merrily for its natural lifespan. I’m pulling this from my understanding of Richard Dawkins “The Selfish Gene”, where he posits that natural selection does not act on the level of a complete organism or cell, but on the level of the individual gene. For whatever reason, the gene(s) that allow a donkey and horse to produce offspring are either neutral or beneficial to both, which is why mules have been produced from them for thousands of years. This ability to produce ‘living’ if sterile offspring is compelling evidence of a common ancestor for donkeys and horses as well, which could also be a topic of discussion.

    The kids point about a human not being able to produce children is easier to answer. Producing offspring isn’t the only trait of a living thing, so if a few members of the species cant reproduce it does not mean they aren’t alive. The sterile humans presumably move, eat, sleep, feel pain, react to outside stimuli, express themselves in complex ways. the philosophical answer “I Think, therefore I am” could also apply.

    Liked by 1 person

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