by Hajra Saeed, BHP Teacher
California, USA

Note from the BHP Team: Big Questions are an opportunity to insert fresh, connected content into the BHP course. This month, take inspiration from veteran BHP teacher Hajra Saeed and follow along with how she connected her classroom to March’s Big Question, What can everyday objects teach us about history? Hajra and her students focused on the compass as their familiar tool, and you can, too. Start by checking out this month’s Big Question article, “A History of the Magnetic Compass” by John Vardalas.

Check out even more ideas from colleagues on how to use the article in the classroom immediately in this separate post.

What do everyday objects tell us about what was going on in the minds of people in the past? An object, like a picture, can tell a story worth a thousand words. Take for example, the compass – an object I had my Big History students focus on recently. I showed the students an “iron fish” compass of the Song Dynasty and asked them what questions they had about the object. At first, the students focused on the object itself, but delving deeper, I asked them to peer into the minds of the inventors. Who were they? Why did they use the iron fish? If the Chinese understood the concept of magnetism, why were they not the conquerors of the “New World”? How accurate was their compass?

Stepping into the shoes of the inventors and users, we decided to test out the compass for ourselves and then verify it with the compasses in our phones. We had to be careful—just shaking the table or not magnetizing the compass needle enough threw the compass off! This everyday object needed some major improvements for oceanic travel. We discovered that though a person might understand the concept of how to use an everyday object, crafting an effective one involves collaboration (and a little help from modern cell phone technology, in our case).


Making compasses in the classroom. Photos courtesy Hajra Saeed.

As is often the case, answers led to new questions. The students have developed good questioning skills this year from the repeating What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? activities in the BHP course (see an example here, from Lesson 7.2) and the Little Big History research project. So, the Age of Exploration activities in Lesson 8.1 seemed like the perfect opportunity to apply questioning skills to everyday objects. I led the students on an investigation on maritime navigation in the thirteenth century that revealed how western Europe came to be the leaders in oceanic travel at that time. I found lots of useful articles and videos on IEEE Reach (an OER with some great STEM-focused inquiry units and projects). Students explored everyday objects like the compass and the sextant (to measure latitude). We read texts, watched videos, and asked questions repeatedly.

Our compass exploration had a number of positive results, all of which went way beyond the face value of the article (the history of the compass) and how it tied in to the exploration and interconnection themes of Unit 8. By interacting with an ancient everyday object, my students and I were brought closer to the time and people that used it, which was not only fun, but which generated new historical perspective. That perspective will enable students to apply the same thinking and questioning skills to other relevant objects and content. Getting students to ask deep questions and then guiding them to some of the answers opened up even greater discovery. It turned out to be a fun and meaningful day for our class, full of adventure and exploration.

About the author: Hajra Saeed teaches at Sato Academy of Math and Science, a STEM school focusing on biomedical science and engineering in Long Beach, CA. She’s been teaching for 17 years and has taught Big History since 2016. Hajra’s four sections (about 100 students) meet twice a week for 95 minutes and once a week for 45 minutes.

Header image: Compass and map photo by Himesh Kumar Behera on Unsplash, CC0.

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