Casey Lever, BHP Teacher
Each year is a new discovery when teaching BHP. This year, I’m determined to concentrate more on all things scale. My emphasis began in Unit 2, when I really wanted to zoom in and bring the application of scales in human history to the foreground to balance the truly massive scales that are integral to the opening of the course. To do that, we traced the timelines of the individual scientists and how they contributed to our understanding of the Universe.
My classroom has two important timelines displayed in it: the BHP threshold posters and a handmade timeline created last year by my ancient history students. The latter follows the length of the notice board at the back of the room and runs from about 10,000 BCE to 2,000 CE. Students have contributed to it in different classes in the past year, and this year I’ve started using it in Big History as well. (I love the idea of making connections across classes – breaking down the silos!) We created a series of time markers across the top of the notice board as the actual timeline, then, to add to it, we’ve made A4 (US readers—that’s letter size, to you!) portrait posters and pinned them below at the appropriate spot.
The ancient history timeline in the classroom is based on civilizations, but the BHP activities are based on pivotal individuals who’ve contributed to our scientific understanding of the Universe. Pointing that out provoked a discussion of the way timelines can represent different pieces of historical information, telling different—but equally important—narratives. In order to add the Lesson 2.1 scientists to our timeline, I asked the students to use scientific ideas as the underpinning organization. We used the idea of the geocentric Universe (Aristotle and Ptolemy) and indicated the domination of such ideas for a thousand years. Then, we added heliocentrism as an idea growing in the fifteenth century, along with the laws of motion, theory of gravity, existence of galaxies, expanding Universe, and the Big Bang theory. Now, we are starting to add in the scientists who contributed to these changes in how we understand our Universe. Students are working in groups to create these.
Concepts we’ve had to apply in this activity include decision making around the nature of the timeline’s purpose and the nature of how we represent time (such as decades, centuries, millennia, lifetimes, generations). Scale! We also discussed what changes in society might have triggered the blossoming of scientific thinking in the fifteenth century, such as the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, and how such ideas might have had an impact on challenging existing thinking. Scale is, well, massive. By zooming in to a specific theme as the foundation for scale and examining specific elements of this topic, the concept was more focused and, therefore, more accessible to students. The hands-on, creative and group creation aspects of the activity made it one my students loved, not to mention it laid the foundations for the next visit to timelines in Unit 3, where the focus is on periodization. Scale is everywhere in Big History, and finding ways to break it down for students—while keeping the larger narrative in mind—will help students carry it with them throughout the course.
About the author: Casey teaches Big History at Ipswich Girls Grammar School in Queensland, Australia, where she is also the Head of Department of Humanities. This is her sixth year teaching BHP, which runs as a semester-long elective subject for students in years 9 and 10 at her school. She enjoys the opportunity BHP gives her to learn more about science alongside her students, as well as the course’s emphasis on the big issues confronting all humans.