Rachel Hansen, BHP Teacher
Iowa, USA

History is an exercise in storytelling. Like all good storytellers, historians must determine where and how to generalize the narrative to make it both manageable and memorable to the audience. Of course, they must also artfully select moments to dive deep and examine those individual and societal stories that hold the entire narrative fabric together. This is the historian’s dilemma: what should get thrown out of the story so that the essential narrative survives in a meaningful way?

Teaching history is made unduly difficult by the mere fact that it continues to get longer. This is precisely why teaching it on a universal scale might seem daunting, if not downright insane. History, on this scale, is simply too big to grasp. Our tiny brains cannot make meaning of such large and distant swaths of time. This is precisely why we need stories—to generalize the narrative in a way that makes it memorable and meaningful to us. Stories allow us to access history; but on their own, they are not enough. In order to see if those individual stories hold up as part of the larger narrative, we need to zoom in and zoom out to test them.

We’re humans. We tell stories. It helps us unpack history. The driving question in Unit 1 gets at the heart of the historian’s dilemma: Why do we look at things from far away and close up? Here are some tips for unpacking it with your students.

Teaching Scale in Unit 1

When students are introduced to the concept of scale in Lesson 1.1, Big History frames up the narrative from the most panoramic of lenses (on the scale of the Universe). At this point in the course, it’s important that students see a zoomed-out view of the narrative as a whole. They’ll need this big framework to make sense of the more fine-grained details they examine later in the course. Most important, they need to be able to see where they fit in the narrative.

Far Away: Big History on a Football Field

We look at things far away to grasp the significance of the big picture, and of course, so that we can place ourselves within that larger framework. To help students orient themselves, the activity from Lesson 1.1 allows them to physically reconstruct the Big History narrative on a football field. From this vantage point, human history is not just an invisible blip on the radar of the Universe, but the last yard before the goal line. To really see the value of scale switching, another activity visualizes human history (a much more manageable chunk than the Universe) on a 100-foot piece of string. We can reframe entire historical narratives simply by changing scales.

Close Up: Origin Stories

 Students would quickly lose touch with the narrative if we continued at that zoomed out scale for too long. To be valuable, historical events need to better inform life in the present. They need to explore that larger narrative through tangible, visible accounts. The origin stories in Lesson 1.2 provide a close-up view from a variety of perspectives: from the Zulu in Southern Africa to the Mayas of Mesoamerica. These stories make history useful to us because they help us understand the kinds of questions origin stories answer and what motivates us, as humans, to ask those questions.

Teaching Scale Beyond Unit 1

Throughout the Big History course, we constantly change the scale of our analysis by zooming in to study consequential events and zooming out to ensure we grasp those events within the context of the overarching narrative. Big History Project research shows that when students grasp the driving course narrative, they connect more deeply with the content and experience long-lasting learning outcomes.

Far Away: Narrative and Thresholds Activities

Each threshold in Big History is like a tent pole, an important component that supports the rest of the narrative. These are moments in the history of the Universe when specific ingredients come together under the right Goldilocks Conditions to create something new and more complex. For each of these thresholds, Big History added new Narrative and Thresholds activities to help students understand the big-picture changes in the narrative. Presented with new information, students will have to determine if it supports, challenges, or extends their understanding of the Universe. This kind of scale switching helps students evaluate what is lost or gained by changing their point of view.

Close Up: Investigations

Students learn best through inquiry, pursuing evidence to answer their questions; so, it is important that we offer them opportunities to test the evidence and piece the narrative together themselves. Most important, when we allow the student to become the historian, we introduce a whole new toolbox of skills, including causal thinking. Children are especially quick to make monocausal arguments, giving priority to explanations that happened relatively recently or those that pin the cause on an individual.

Investigations are microcosms of the Big History narrative, providing a close-up view of a concept or event for students to critique and evaluate with evidence. Students examine how theories change and become generally accepted over time. They do this by studying astronomers from Ptolemy to Hubble (Unit 2), and the elements from star formation to Mendeleev and the periodic table (Unit 3). In the second half of the course, collective learning appears in the narrative. Humans have the ability to share, preserve, and build upon ideas over time. Students critically evaluate this concept across a variety of scales and locations. They compare animal and human communication systems (Unit 6), evaluate foraging and farming lifestyles (Unit 7), and ultimately try to determine whether or not we’re better off as a species and a planet thanks to the innovations enabled by collective learning (Unit 9). These investigations make historical events sticky and memorable, especially when students use them to make meaning of the larger narrative.

Making Meaning of History

Because history is more about meaning-making than collecting facts, it manifests as a springboard for thinking about our individual place in the story (both in time and space). As Professor Bob Bain’s work on historical consciousness illustrates, it is human nature to turn historical events into meaningful frameworks that orient us in time and place. These frameworks serve to connect us with our past and direct us to a “possible, plausible future.” In other words, history is as much about the future as it is the past. Where do we see ourselves in the story? How do we connect our individual stories to the larger, societal stories? How will history shape our future actions?

Predicting the future depends heavily upon a comprehensive analysis of historical patterns. As Bob Bain likes to say, “The present is the leading edge of the past.” Our students are active constructors of the past, entering our classrooms with their own theories and preconceptions. We must provide them with the kinds of stories that inform their present realities as they look to construct a better vision of their futures.

Why do we look at things from far away and close up? Why should you teach scale in your history class? For perspective. To look for contradictory evidence. So that we can find our place in the narrative. We need to start our study of the past with microscope eyes and telescope goggles. Once our students begin to deconstruct history in this way, they will begin to see themselves in the narrative and they will be empowered to construct their own stories of the past.

About the author: Rachel Hansen is a high school history and geography teacher in Muscatine, IA. Rachel teaches the BHP world history course over two 90-day semesters to about 50 ninth- through twelfth-grade students each school year.

Cover image: Chateaubriand Meditating on the Ruins of Rome, by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, after 1808, public domain.


One thought on “The Historian’s Dilemma

  1. Rachel, that was an excellent explanation of the Historian’s Dilemma! Thank you so much for sharing your unique perspective on how to make this work with our students, i will take your advice/tips/observations from this blog post and incorporate them as I teach the Big History Project in the upcoming 2019-2020 school year.


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