Rachel Phillips, BHP Team Learning Scientist
Washington, USA

What’s the difference between memorizing a bunch of facts and lasting learning?

Have you ever been at a party in the middle of winter where your coat gets thrown onto a bed with a bunch of other coats, and when the party is over, you have to try to figure out which one is yours? And have you ever thought to yourself, “If there were only a coat rack, this heap of stuff would be organized and I’d quickly find MY coat and get out of here?”

To students, school often looks like the coats we throw on the bed. There might be an ELA coat, a math coat, a science coat, and (of course!) a history coat. To students, it probably just seems like a mess of stuff. The “coats” (subjects) have all been thrown together in a big pile (school), so they’re obviously connected, but beyond that, it’s hard to make sense of why they’re all together. Do they even have anything to do with each other? This makes school seem like a set of mutually exclusive subjects with an isolated set of tasks and facts. As a result, students spend their time looking at the trees, never quite finding the forest. This seems to be a common problem in schools. As it turns out, Big History functions like the coat rack, and helps solve this problem by giving students a place where they can hang their “coats.”

For me, this issue first came to light about four years ago, when I was trying to determine if Big History had a lasting impact on students. I was interviewing sophomores, juniors, seniors, and even college freshmen about their experiences with BHP, and I heard the same sentiment—that BHP answers the question of how subjects and disciplines fit together—over and over again, year after year. The quotes shared here are from three different students, at three different times, from three different schools around the country. Two of the students were twelfth-graders and one was a college freshman; they all took Big History during their freshman year of high school.

“Connecting different concepts and connecting different subjects is not something you really have to do a lot in high school. You have your math class, your science class, and your history class, and they don’t really overlap. It was nice to have a class that taught us how to make those connections.”

“I think really, what Big History did which was valuable for me was it provided this kind of broad frame that you’re able to put things on context with. So, just think about things like 13.82 billion years is a long time, so yeah, it just puts things in context and then it helps things either like not seem as big as they were before manageable and … I guess that’s kind of more of a life lesson. But in school too.”

“With Big History it wasn’t facts and all these dates you had to remember. It was concepts that you had to understand to kind of give you a background for all the rest of the classes you take throughout high school. I liked that a lot.”

These students all mention that BHP helps them contextualize and connect their learning. Much like the contextualization we all do in history class to help us better connect historical events and processes to time and place, BHP proves a contextualization, or in this case, framework, and this helps students make connections between all the things they’re learning in the course, in school, and sometimes even in life.

In the learning sciences, we refer to something that serves this kind of grand, organizing function as a conceptual framework. A conceptual framework is an analytical tool that is used to make conceptual distinctions and organize ideas. Or, in less academic terms, a conceptual framework is like a coat rack where we can hang all the knowledge we’re learning, which enables us to see how it connects. Conceptual frameworks come in many variations, can be used for a variety of purposes, and are often defined according to context and use. BHP research has shown that when taught with fidelity to the key course skills and concepts, the course may provide students with a powerful organizing tool for school and life.

So, what makes up the framework for the course? In the Big History Project course, we have the driving narrative of the modern, scientific origin story, which is the account that ties together the history of the Universe and our place within it. We have the eight thresholds of increasing complexity (from the Big Bang to the appearance of stars, and onward to the Modern Revolution) that organize this 13.8-billion-year history, so that students are able to situate all the knowledge they acquire. We have over 14 disciplinary perspectives that contribute to this narrative, expanding the possibilities for student connections. We engage in the vital practice of scale switching, which enables students to properly contextualize and subsequently organize all that they’re learning. Without engaging with all of these elements of the course, parts of the framework might be missing, and coats might start falling on the floor.

Perhaps as important as teaching with fidelity to the course skills and concepts is ensuring students learn the overarching BHP narrative early, and that they revisit it often throughout the course. The Origin Stories Introduction activity in Unit 1 should be revisited so students keep in mind the modern, scientific origin story of Big History, which is, after all, the narrative frame of the course. Reevaluating the thresholds should be a regular practice over the course of the year. Doing so will remind students how new concepts and new ideas connect to the thresholds, which will in turn help them remember “where to hang the coats.” If students fail to understand and revisit the larger frame of the BHP story, they may struggle to visualize their coat rack and over time may lose the interconnections. Understanding interconnectedness also helps students see their own place in the narrative of Big History, which provides personal relevance. When information is personally relevant to learners, they are more likely to engage with that information, and that engagement leads to improved school outcomes. Who doesn’t want that?!

As you start thinking about the upcoming school year and the importance of narrative in BHP, what are your strategies for presenting and maintaining the narrative in your classroom? How do you keep your coat rack standing?

About the author: Rachel Phillips is a learning scientist who develops curriculum and conducts research for the Big History Project. She has taught at the K-12, college, and graduate levels. Rachel was formerly Director of Research and Evaluation at Code.org. Prior to that, she was faculty at the University of Washington and program director for a National Science Foundation-funded research project. She approaches all her work from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Cover image: Detail from a map of science derived from clickstream data. Image courtesy PLOS ONE.

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