Vanessa Pratt, BHP Teacher and Assistant Principal
Our school has run a Year 10 elective Big History class for a few years. I was involved in the original exploration of the subject and the integration into our curriculum but had never taught it—until Semester 1 of this year. These are my top three takeaways from my Big History adventure.
- Classroom culture is key
One of the most important aspects of any successful classroom is the culture that is established from the outset. This is certainly true of a Big History classroom. Creating a positive culture for learning takes time though, and a good investment at the beginning of the semester will pay off in the long term. Reflecting on my semester, I realize there were things I figured out along the way that could have helped had I spent more time on culture at the start. In Project Based Teaching (2018), Boss and Larmer emphasize the importance of classroom culture for successful project-based learning, which includes incorporating student and teacher norms, student voice, collaboration, and encouraging risk-taking behaviour. There is shared accountability. Next time I teach Big History, I will spend more time investing in establishing these norms at the start of the semester, rather than on the fly.
- I get by with a little help from my friends
Use your colleagues to assist—especially when teaching outside your traditional content knowledge area. I am lucky to teach on the same site as the Victorian Space Science Education Centre in Victoria (VSSEC), a specialist STEM education facility that is home to experts in space science, something I am happy to admit I am not an expert in. I took my students across for a lesson on the Big Bang—and learned so much myself. I was also honest about this with the students, modelling what it means to be a lifelong learner. My colleagues at VSSEC were keen to assist, as they were familiar with the BHP course and happy to help.
If you aren’t lucky enough to be able to use a facility like VSSEC, don’t despair. Your science teacher colleagues are another valuable resource to draw on. I have found that my colleagues were very excited about sharing their knowledge and getting involved. In addition to your on-campus scientists, many local museums love to help teachers with their history and science programmes! Teachers and museum educators are so generous with their time and love learning, so consider your colleagues a resource as well.
- Experiment and embrace the failures
I am always keen to experiment with new approaches to education— after all, there is that famous saying that the most dangerous phrase is ‘because we’ve always done it this way’. We run formal examinations at the end of each unit at Year 10, and I thought for a long time about how to run this in my BHP classroom. I wanted to do it differently, so I put a post in the BHP online community to ask for ideas from my colleagues. Other teachers had used the Investigations as exams, which I thought was a great idea. But I really wanted the students to engage with Revision Assistant, the online feedback feature on BHP Score rather than write a static essay with pen and paper. So, I set up the exam in a different way: Students sat the exam in a computer lab and were able to use Revision Assistant, which gives instant feedback, to improve their work as the wrote it. I incorporated the use of the feedback into the assessment rubric. Student feedback was very positive, and they were so proud of their work at the end of the semester.
Teaching Big History for the first time was a wonderful experience. I learned new things and shared in the learning experience with my students. One of the most valuable experiences for me was seeing the passion of the students shine through in their Little Big History projects at the end of the semester. The lightbulb ‘aha’ moments, as they connected the dots throughout the thresholds of history to lead up to the present. I had fantastic feedback from my class, who also enjoyed being a part of the ‘experiment’ of me teaching the course for the first time.
About the author: Vanessa Pratt is an assistant principal and history teacher at Strathmore Secondary College in Melbourne, Australia. She has taught history to nearly every year level and has presented at the History Teachers Association of Victoria many times. Vanessa has also taught Global Politics.
- Victorian Space Science Education Centre https://www.vssec.vic.edu.au/
- Boss, Suzie & Larmer John, Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences, ASCD, 2018.