Damian Pawlowski, BHP Teacher
California, USA

Throughout the Big History course, students have many opportunities to ask great questions about the Universe, our planet, and humanity. Students also develop their research skills as they navigate the units of the course and gain a deeper understanding of the Big History thresholds and themes. In the culminating activity of the course, the Little Big History project (LBH), students will put their questioning and research skills to the test as they tell the story of an object or idea that they find interesting. An excellent resource has been developed to help students get started on this challenging task: the LBH “Big Questions” Brainstorm activity. In the activity, students begin to pose the questions that will guide the research of their topic and reflect on how their topic connects to BHP’s thresholds of increasing complexity.

The goal of the “Big Questions” Brainstorm activity is not only to provide students with the chance to create good questions about their topic, but also get them to reflect on whether they are asking the right questions. Students begin the activity by reviewing the questions that Bob Bain pondered in his LBH of coffee. Teachers can then choose a topic of their own and model the activity for the class. We chose the banana for our class example and worked together to connect our knowledge of the fruit to the thresholds and themes of the course. Modeling the process of crafting meaningful questions was an essential part of the activity. It especially helped the students to see that—just as Bob Bain found, with his example of coffee—connecting a topic to Thresholds 1 and 2 can be tricky. As the students progress with their research, I will be working with them to think more critically about how they might be able to make connections to these earlier thresholds.

When it came time for the students to begin their own brainstorming, I suggested that they focus on writing questions that emphasized the “how” and the “why” of their topic. As they worked, I reminded them to think about the different academic disciplines that can support and extend their knowledge of the topic. The students then shared their ideas with the class and we offered feedback and suggestions about how to they could edit their questions to be more clear and focused.

Overall, the “Big Questions” Brainstorm activity was an effective way for students to begin the LBH research process. As they continue to research their topics, they might need to revise and refine their questions, but they have built the foundation for their future work. As they move on, they will work to think about the specific sources of information that will help them to answer their questions and start to construct the narrative for an awesome LBH.

About the author: Damian Pawlowski began teaching Big History in 2013 as an interdisciplinary elective course to 9th graders at Los Gatos High School in California. Currently he teaches the BHP World History course to 10th graders. His BHP World History class is a full-year course with two sections of about 25 students each.

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