Bob Regan, Big History Project Team
From the BHP Team: This month, we’re trying something new. We wanted to add a series of posts that focus on the instructional skills within the Big History Project course. We are calling these posts, “Big Skills.” Each month we’ll ask an expert to post about a topic relevant to the course and invite teachers to discuss the post via social media and within the Big History Teacher Community on Yammer.
Too often history is just a long list of people, places, and things to memorize. Students struggle to put them together. They might learn about Greece, Rome, the great civilizations of Africa, or the Islamic scholars, but not how these topics connect to one another. Students might focus on a single primary source and even be able to provide details about its context. Yet it is increasingly rare that students are able to explain the significance of one source or one event to another—to frame history as a coherent story.
Narrative is a powerful means of helping students connect the dots of history. In the Big History Project, there are eight significant moments, or thresholds, that make up the story. The story starts with the Big Bang, continues with the first stars and then the first chemical elements. From there, the story unfolds with the formation of the Solar System and the emergence of life on Earth. Humans arrive and begin to learn collectively, and then begin to farm, and finally learn to use energy in massive quantities with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which is the start of the modern age. This story, like all narratives in history, is a very brief summary – one that invites students to ask how each article, video, and activity of the course connects to the previous threshold and to speculate how it might connect to the next. The result is a more coherent approach to teaching and learning history.
From a cognitive standpoint, it turns out this can be very important for learning. Narratives create a context that helps students make sense of the facts of history – a mental model. One analogy is that of a coat rack. If you’ve ever been to a dinner party where people toss coats on a bed, it’s hard to see trends or patterns. But if instead, you have a row of pegs on a wall, you can hang the coats, organize them, and draw conclusions based on what you see (Is it cold? What’s in fashion? How many guests have arrived?). Like a coat rack, a clear starting narrative of history helps students sort out the people, places, and events of history like a row of coats on a rack.
It’s important to keep in mind that all narratives are generalizations. They will gloss over details in places or imperfectly fit the details of history in others. Throughout the year, it’s important for students to ask themselves whether a single detail supports, extends, or challenges the larger narrative. Students should understand places where the narrative doesn’t quite work, and then ask if there is an account of the history that fits better. This is how students move from merely learning about history to actually doing the work of a historian. Narrative is what brings history to life.
We can also think about this approach to using narratives as a tool. They not only help us connect and make sense of history; they provide a means for students to connect historical events to the world they live in today. This is what Bob Bain calls “A usable history.” If we think about a current event as the latest in a long string of events, it invites questions about the larger context and how we dealt with similar events in the past. It invites students to contextualize current events across disciplines in a way that connects to the thresholds of Big History.
To learn more about how to incorporate narrative in the classroom, check out Session 7.2: Narrative and Thresholds in the Teaching Big History online professional development course.