BHP Team


Note from BHP Team: Do civilizations collapse? Turns out, this is a tricky question. And it’s this month’s Big Question in the BHP course and community. We’ve added to the course a new article by Newcastle University’s Guy Middleton that is sure to ignite some critical thinking and claim testing. Some BHP teachers are already exchanging ideas about how they’re planning to incorporate the article into their classrooms (if you’re in Unit 7 right now, take a look—ideas abound!). Read on for lesson-planning inspiration, and then join the conversation in Yammer!  

Wow! I really like this article. We’re getting ready to do The Rise, Fall, and Collapse of Civilizations activity in Lesson 7.2. This article would be a perfect introduction to the activity. The distinction between the collapse of a state and civilization is powerful, and much more accurate than an entire civilization disappearing. Once students read the article, they can use the information to dig deeper into the “collapse” of their civilization and make a claim as to the extent of the collapse. They can focus on what part of their civilization collapsed. If you wanted to have students do some research, you might have them look at what characteristics remained years later, using examples from the article with the Maya.

The introduction of the article, which makes the claim that it’s a mistake to attribute the destruction of the environment as the cause for the fall of the Easter Island and Maya civilizations, provides a lot of claim-testing opportunities for students. It is also one we could extend to the present. There are many claims that the environmental damage humans are doing might destroy civilization—as well as the planet. How does this compare with the claims made in the article?

You might also look at the increasing complexity of the civilizations and how so many components may have contributed to the fall of states rather than entire civilizations. Just like thresholds of increasing complexity, civilizations have more parts, which makes them more fragile.

It would be a good follow-up to look at how civilizations such as Rome and Han reemerge—although changed—after a time.

So much potential with this article. I think it’s a super valuable addition to the unit.

Kathy Hays, BHP Teacher, Grade 9
Arizona, USA


Like Kathy, I would get students to do the The Rise, Fall, and Collapse of Civilizations activity in Lesson 7.2 and then get them to read the article and brainstorm other reasons why civilizations might collapse. I would also get students to look at what happened to the Easter Islanders and Maya, and compare their situation to what happened to other first nations people such as the Aboriginals. Another activity you could do is look at how history can be interpreted to support certain viewpoints or causes and how the evidence is often ignored. Students could use this article and then another one supporting the environmental viewpoint and do a claims-testing exercise on them.

Charles Rushworth, BHP Teacher, Year 9
New South Wales, Australia


Love the connections to current events, Easter Island (for those who “went there” in the Lesson 1.3 activity Easter Island Mystery), and the granular look at the Maya!

I wonder how I could align this with the three other rather specific collapse theories the course presents in the Lesson 7.2 activities,  The Rise, Fall, and Collapse of Civilizations and Were They Pushed or Did They Jump? Dr. Middleton’s three theories are somewhat—but not completely—different from what is presented elsewhere in the course. My gut says to deploy this as a curveball either before or after the Lesson 7.2 activities are completed and let students investigate Dr. Middleton’s three theories and see how these compare to the “other” three theories (one of which is essentially the same). The point is that perhaps the students should/could realize that the collapses could have been caused by a number of (more than three) different reasons. Maybe culminate with an activity that attempts to identify which theories are the most convincing for a particular civilization. I seem to recall that some civilizations don’t really “fit” with the traditional BHP theories and might better fit with Dr. Middleton’s.

Causality – check
Multiple sources – check
Content standards – check
Claim testing – you could certainly go here

Erik Christensen, BHP Teacher, Grade 10
California, USA


As Erik mentioned, this article presents a different narrative than the one we’re used to (even in existing BHP content), which makes it ripe fruit for–you guessed it–deliberation! The last sentence of the article is all we need to start our students off: “Perhaps we should be asking ourselves what exactly we should be learning from history.” A deliberation question might be, “What is really the most important historical lesson we should take from Easter Island?”

Mike Marshall, BHP Teacher, Grade 9
Washington, USA


What an interesting article and fantastic ideas from everyone. I agree with Charles, it would be interesting to compare to other first nations, such as Aboriginals. I would use this to reinforce claim testing and to remind students that, as historians, we need to be careful with evidence. While it is tempting to create a dramatic Hollywood script, the reality is, when we zoom out, we see patterns that are less dramatic. Civilizations evolve; power and a desire to conquer have long-term impacts; and interactions between civilizations have both positive and negative impacts. I would use this article as a linking activity between Unit 7 and Unit 8, as it leads nicely to the impacts of expansion.

Kim Lochner, BHP Teacher, Years 9 and 10
Queensland, Australia


I think I might use this article as a way to reinforce our “civilization checklist.” I like to emphasize with students how many different aspects there are to a civilization and how it is a complex creation of different parts. This article would help us understand what parts of a civilization change or are destroyed during a decline or a takeover.

I think it would help create a more concrete view of what it means to “rise” or “fall.”

Donnetta Elsasser, BHP Teacher, Grade 9
Washington, USA


I am thinking I might have students write a theoretical story about how the United States collapsed. I’ll have to put some parameters together. I imagine something a few pages long with some images placed throughout the text to illustrate some of the ideas. Might be something we revisit in Unit 10, The Future.

Brian Moore, BHP Teacher, Grade 9
Connecticut, USA


So many great ideas from the article and this thread. I was really struck by the idea of how traditional history, with its “march through time” has pushed a narrative of rise and fall, rise and fall. I started thinking that maybe it is really a story of change and transformation. As others have pointed out, it would be great to get students to think about what aspects of a civilization are still present in today’s world, and even ponder the question, does a civilization, society, or group ever really disappear? (Thinking about how DNA has been passed down through hundreds of thousands of years.) I also liked what Charles Rushworth posted about using the article to look at first nation peoples. We are not too far from Cahokia Mounds (just outside of St. Louis), and I think this article would make a great lead-in to a History as Mystery of sorts to look at what happened at Cahokia. Was it a case of collapse and disappearance, or one of change and transformation?

Zachary Cain, BHP Teacher, Grade 6
Illinois, USA


Want to throw your ideas about civilizational collapse into the mix? Join the conversation on Yammer to discuss and collaborate on activity ideas with other BHP teachers to bring fresh, new content into your classroom!

Header image: Easter Island by Thomas Griggs on Unsplash, CC0.


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