Esther Quaedackers, University of Amsterdam, Big History Lecturer
A note from BHP Team: The Little Big History project is the culminating research activity of the BHP course. It’s a chance for students to explore an object or idea of personal interest – pizza, ballet, cybercurrency – and produce a portfolio-worthy piece of work that traces its history to pre-human times. The creator of this project is none other than Esther Quaedackers – a lecturer in Big History at the University of Amsterdam, and a longtime advisor and colleague of the BHP team. We invited her to share with us a short history of the Little Big History project. What follows is that story. Whether you’re five years into tackling this project with kids or tucking the idea away for future use, we hope reading about the underlying rationale will prove useful, if not inspiring.
A Short Big History of Little Big Histories
If you are reading this post, you may already be familiar with Little Big Histories. You may know that Little Big Histories try to connect Big History to subjects that are relatively small, and you may even have asked your students to write their own Little Big History. But did you also know Little Big Histories have existed for more than a decade and have evolved quite a bit during that time?
The first idea for a Little Big History emerged in a Parisian café in 2006, where I was trying to explain to my partner why I thought Big History was relevant for everybody. When I argued Big History simply helped people understand and navigate the world around them a bit better, he challenged me to explain how it could help him find his way in the alleys that surrounded us. I tried answering that question by linking aspects of different phases of Big History to the Parisian road map and while doing so, discovered that thinking like that was quite productive. It generated lots of new ideas. And it was fun.
A few weeks later, I asked a student in our Big History honors course at the University of Amsterdam to do something similar. I asked her to pick a topic she was interested in and link that subject—milk—to each of the 12 lectures she had attended. That assignment really engaged the student, who had been quite critical of Big History. It made Big History a bit less distant and abstract for her, which helped her understand it better.
Because the little Big History assignment proved to be both productive and engaging, it quickly became the final assignment in all our academic Big History courses. It still is. Even though quite a few students are baffled when they are asked to connect subjects like their bottle of water or their phone to things like the rings of Saturn or early RNA-based forms of life, they almost always come to appreciate the assignment. The little Big History approach was picked up elsewhere, too. In 2013, it was even turned into an H2 TV series.
Of course, the spread of little Big Histories also meant they evolved. People tweaked them in different ways to meet their own needs. I continued to develop our own version of the Little Big History assignment as well, often in collaboration with my colleague Fred Spier. For instance, after a while we began to distinguish between a brainstorm and a writing phase. During the brainstorm phase, we began to emphasize the importance of generating original ideas about aspects of all the classes. It didn’t matter if students used nothing but their own imagination, came up with ideas that later turned out to be incorrect, or came up with ones that seemed far-fetched. This phase stimulated student creativity. Of course, these sometimes-wild ideas still had to be turned into properly supported arguments. That was what the writing phase was for. During that phase, students had to pick their three best connections and develop them further into a coherent essay.
There was one caveat: one connection needed to be about the history of the nonliving world, one about the history of life, and one about human history. This prevented students from sticking to the parts of Big History they were most comfortable with and encouraged them to learn about the parts they knew less about. A later change in the way we used Little Big Histories was the introduction of the requirement to formulate connections made during the brainstorm phase as questions. This may seem like a small change, but it makes an important difference. Take for instance the link between a bottle of water and Saturn’s rings: A connection might be that there is water in both of them. A connecting question might ask why there is water in both of them. The latter encourages students to dig much deeper than the former.
Apart from developing the Little Big History approach for educational purposes, I also started to use it for my own research. After all, its ability to generate new ideas seemed promising. I began writing a book about the Little Big History of Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, in Beijing. This post is not the right place to summarize the content of the book, but I would like to mention a few ways in which a subject like building can be connected to aspects of Big History, in order to give a very brief impression of the possibilities. There are numerous ways in which people’s thoughts about the cosmos, nature, and agriculture have shaped the design of the gate. There are even more prerequisites, such as the formation of the elements, the evolution of wood, the emergence of a certain sense of place and the development of certain social structures that help explain why the gate was built the way it was. There are tons of similarities between human building and life, ranging from the use of walls in complex cells and cities like Beijing to the reasons why people, ants, and termites build so much, which can tell us something about the construction of the gate. And there are certain underlying mechanisms, such as energy considerations, that have shaped all building behavior, including that of Tiananmen, which can be used to tie the book together into a coherent whole. Once I started thinking about all these different connections, it was hard to stop and easy to fill a book with them, even after weeding out everything that was not new or simply not good enough. To me the possibilities seemed and still seem endless
In my experience, Little Big Histories have potential, both as an educational and as a research approach. Of course, these approaches are still in their infancy. I’m hoping others will pick up the idea and keep developing it further. I’m hoping you will!
About the author: Esther Quaedackers is a lecturer in Big History at the University of Amsterdam, where she teaches several Big History honors classes and works on Little Big Histories of building.