Rachel Phillips, BHP Team Learning Scientist
Washington, USA

“In the history of physics, every time we’ve looked beyond the scales and energies we’re familiar with, we’ve found things we wouldn’t have thought were there. You look inside the atom, and eventually you discover quarks. Who would have thought that?” — Lisa Randall, physicist

Well, it turns out that historians have been thinking about scale, since, well, since they became historians. One of the main devices historians use to understand the past is scale switching. Scale switching is zooming in to look at a narrow timeline and zooming out to look at a broad one. Doing both ensures you don’t lose the forest for the trees or lose the trees if you’re looking at the forest. However, historians don’t just scale switch to help them understand the past at different scales of time. They also use maps and other types of geographic boundaries to help them understand both the large and small stories of the past.

Why study scales of geography or space? Because people and the places they occupy are what give us a history. Places and spaces provide venues for communication, and they facilitate patterns of interaction that help us understand and define the past. In the Big History story, or when we zoom out to the largest scales of time and space, places existed before there were even people to interact in them – if we don’t study the spaces, we are ignoring a part of history.

Imagine you were asked to name the three most important events in the history of your lifetime. What are they? Now, what about the three most important events in your lifetime in your town? Or your country? Are they the same events? What do you think are the three most important historical events? Are they the same as the three most important historical events specifically in the northern hemisphere? Or the southern hemisphere, in the past 100 years? Your answers are likely to vary every time you switch time or spatial scales, which shows us how scale helps us see one story, while perhaps obscuring another.

However, these stories, when put together, help us understand the intertwined narratives of the past. Scale switching gives us a better window into the people, places, and events that preceded us. Some of these stories are large and sweeping, and they provide us with the overarching frameworks that guide us. Other stories give us smaller, but incredibly important details, many of which changed the course of history. If we don’t zoom out, zoom in, and zoom back out again, we might miss the large, slow shifts we see in history, but also, the discrete events which, when all put together, give us the richest story of all.

So, in your classrooms, remember to keep shrinking and expanding time and zooming in and out – in other words, scale switch whenever possible. It changes our perspective, helps us understand different viewpoints that exist in the world. We move away from thinking there is just one story or one way to see the world.

To learn more about how to incorporate scale in the classroom, check out 7.3: Scale in the Teaching Big History online professional development course.

Author: Rachel Phillips is a learning scientist who develops curriculum and conducts research for the Big History Project. She has taught at the K-12, college, and graduate levels. Rachel was formerly Director of Research and Evaluation at Code.org. Prior to that, she was faculty at the University of Washington and program director for a National Science Foundation-funded research project. She approaches all her work from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Cover images: Left: Sprout by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash, CC0. Right: Forest by Andrew Coelho on Unsplash, CC0.

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