Casey Lever, BHP Teacher
Teaching the Big History Project course fosters a love of learning, a critical mind, and the courage to meet the future.
First, let me make it clear where I am coming from: the Australian Curriculum: History provides a rigorous, traditional, and truly valid approach to the discipline of history in secondary schools. It equips students with an excellent understanding of the significance of major events and phenomena in both Australian and world history. It also provides students with the ability to critically analyze and evaluate, thus enabling them to comprehend and negotiate the complexity and implications of contemporary global geo-politics. Such knowledge and skills are indispensable for every student, and in my world, everyone would study history through their senior year of school.
But my engagement with BHP over the last five years has had a powerful effect on me. Of fundamental importance is the narrative: it’s the history of the Universe, a look at the last 13.8 billion years and how we got to where we are today. They’re not kidding about the big part. One result of the enormous scope of the course is that it doesn’t just cover the subject we call history today–it covers a lot more. Please don’t find that unsettling; it’s actually awesome.
It has this effect on you, this course. It’s a feeling I share with all the Big History colleagues from around the world I’ve met through BHP, mostly online. Our love of history in all its forms and time periods is deeper than ever, but the Big History approach has reframed our thinking; specifically, the intensity and the urgency with which we teach it. It has taught us that in an era of terror-inducing challenges to our way of life—including Big Brother technology and automation, the fraying of democracy, the acceptance of creeping authoritarianism, and the seeming normalization of violence and hate speech—the teaching of history has an even more important role to play in our students’ lives than it has had in the past. There is no room for history as an indulgence, as nostalgia, as an end in itself. Every discipline will play its part, but there must be a place for students to discover, interrogate, and evaluate past human behavior in order to help make sense of today and tomorrow, and that place is in our classrooms.
This is where the Big History Project comes in. BHP is an online community as well as a vast treasure trove of beautifully presented resources, all created by teachers, for teachers. It is permanently available online and it’s free to every school across the globe. The course tackles every aspect of a teaching course you can think of, from comprehensive professional development and forums where you can interact with other Big History teachers, to planned course materials for teachers. You can sign up your students to have their own access and account (note that this can only be done through your school). There are stores of current, well-researched articles, graphics, video clips, and quizzes that can be incorporated into lessons and homework suitable for any timeframe you have available—from a few weeks to years. There is even a condensed public course for curious parents to sign up for if they’d like to learn alongside their students. BHP was established using the resources of Bill Gates, after he fell in love with the course years ago, and the course itself has been heavily influenced by David Christian, an Australian academic at Sydney’s Macquarie University. David is the originator of Big History as a discipline and maintains ongoing contact with the project.
Whether you have the luxury, as I do, of teaching the BHP course in addition to mainstream history courses, or whether you simply embrace it and incorporate it into your lexicon and pedagogy, I expect that it will profoundly affect you and your teaching of history. Here are five reasons I believe Big History will become something you love.
- The BHP course provides a narrative and framework for all student learning.
Big History asks the big bold questions that students want to ask but schools rarely seems to answer, at least not systematically. How did we get here? What’s the Big Bang theory and why do we think it’s the best scientific origin story we’ve got? Why did life evolve on Earth and seemingly nowhere else that we know of? Why do humans act the way we do? Which ancient and medieval civilizations were the most powerful and why did they fail? Why is the modern world changing so fast? Big History draws upon astronomy, physics, history, anthropology, geology and yes, just everything, to explore the latest evidence-based answers to questions that we all ask. As a result, students get a strong idea of how the disciplines fit together to create knowledge as we know it. It’s a brilliant fit for Years 9 and 10 students, giving them an overview of how it all works before they choose the areas they want to delve into more deeply in their senior year.
- Big History breaks through silo thinking.
Every discipline contributes to the body of knowledge and understanding that makes up the sum of academic scholarship that is the result of a thousand years of truth seeking. BHP course activities explain and value every discipline and its contribution, and do not silo areas of knowledge because they’re deemed out of the domain of our interest. Instead, learning is underpinned by the process of making and testing claims, where students develop a thoughtful, consistent, and rigorous approach to testing new ideas and information. The goal is that students embrace all knowledge rather than narrowing their reasoning to one branch of thought. As a result, students learn to think in a rounded, interdisciplinary way that values fact checking, scholarship, and review.
- Big History teaches students how to think.
BHP values clear, logical, thought and argument. Teaching materials treat religion and belief as valid forms of interpreting the world, but also draw distinctions with rigorous scientific and historical scholarship around claim testing, an important skill in BHP that embodies a whole set of accompanying processes that will be very familiar to history teachers. A series of activities called Investigations post questions such as “How and why do individuals change their minds?” These Investigations ask students to contend with significant concepts of evidence and truth, and significant human understandings of the world around us, such as the shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric model of the Solar System. Students are asked to write essays proving claims using supporting evidence from the materials provided, and to respond to a counterclaim in a valid way.
- Big History Project coursework promotes considerable gains in student writing.
The BHP course is text based and involves regular reading and writing opportunities using a range of genres. One helpful feature of the texts provided is that they are on the website at three different Lexile strengths. Students can select the level at which they want to read each article. In data gathered by BHP researchers across a large student group in 2017 – 2018 (4000+ samples), growth was strong in all four elements measured: reasoning, use of evidence, use of disciplinary concepts, and writing mechanics, a result which was evident in both public school and independent school systems.1 There is also BHP Score, a free essay-scoring service intended to equip teachers and students with instantaneous, formative feedback on student writing. This feedback is aligned to the BHP Writing Rubric.
- Big History is future orientated and promotes cooperation.
Ultimately, there is no point in teaching anything if it does not assist us live our lives. BHP is divided into nine thresholds. Thresholds are moments of climactic change where new conditions give rise to new eventualities. These thresholds are:
Threshold 1: The Big Bang
Threshold 2: The Stars Light Up
Threshold 3: New Chemical Elements
Threshold 4: Earth and the Solar System
Threshold 5: Life
Threshold 6: Collective Learning
Threshold 7: Agriculture
Threshold 8: The Modern Revolution
Threshold 9: The Future
Each threshold is examined in terms of what conditions occurred to produce it, and, once we get to the history of humans, how we as a species navigated our way through it. One thing I love about this course is that it barely mentions war. Big History is ultimately a survival story based on optimism and human cooperation, and I feel comfortable tackling the vital but tricky subject of the future on those terms.
In addition to these five reasons, the BHP team has also done the heavy lifting for Australian history teachers by mapping the Big History Project course against the Australian Curriculum: History, and Teaching Big History against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST). All these resources are available to Australian history teachers on the Big History website.
Don’t take my word for it, but dive in or dip your toe into BHP today. Get ready to expand your horizons.
Sign up at www.bighistoryproject.com. Please note: You will need to use your verifiable school email address in order to be given an account.
About the author: Casey teaches Big History at Ipswich Girls Grammar School in Queensland, Australia, where she is also the Head of Department of Humanities. She has taught BHP since 2016 and runs the course as an elective for students in years 9 and 10 at her school. She enjoys the opportunity BHP gives her to learn more about science alongside her students, as well as the course’s emphasis on the big issues confronting all humans.