Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Team Member
So, in prepping to write this blog post, I went back to the amazing one Rachel Hansen wrote for Unit 3. I must admit that reading her recollections of high school chemistry brought me back to my own high school days. While I didn’t set anything on fire, a group of us “super intellectual” students did convince our chemistry teacher that we were far too advanced for class and could work independently. Surprisingly, she actually let us, until we, in our infinite wisdom, didn’t do that well on the first test after our self-imposed independent study program. Another thing that struck me from Rachel’s post was the amount of green sticky notes on the claim “The Earth is flat” (see the claim testing activity in Lesson 3.2), which indicated that many of her students agreed with this claim.
That, in turn, got me thinking about the driving question for Unit 4 (“How and Why Do Theories Become Generally Accepted?”), and also wondering about how maybe we’re also regressing as a society. Why would such a theory—that the Earth is flat—be making a comeback? Not that it really ever had a huge point of popularity prior to the twenty-first century Facebook group of “flat-Earthers” or the grade-school kids who watch way too many YouTube conspiracy theory videos. Even in the ancient world, many were convinced of the Earth’s spherical shape (you know, like those other planets they could see in the night sky). So how does a theory become generally accepted in both the scientific and historical communities but also in society as a whole? What has to happen for a large group of people to accept something as being true—or in this case, false?
There are some wonderful lessons in Unit 4 that help to illuminate the answer to this driving question. For example, in Lesson 4.0 you’ll find How Did Earth and the Solar System Form? (video), and “How Our Solar System Formed” (article), in which Big History authorities—in this case David Christian and Cynthia Stokes-Brown—lay out the evidence for students to understand. Then, the active accretion activity at the end of Lesson 4.0 has students take that information and apply it so that the evidence and authority align with their logic. There’s nothing like 30 students running around the school grounds bumping into each other and linking together to simulate accretion to drive home this concept. Or even better, when a few of my students decided to re-create accretion and the formation of the Earth and Moon with a video featuring candy (could be a wonderful way to use up all that leftover Halloween candy).
But the lessons that really help students fully understand how to answer the driving question are 4.2 and 4.3. Typically, I go through Lesson 4.3 and then circle back around to Lesson 4.2. The logic behind this is to present students with the evidence from Wegener and Hess about plate tectonics and then have them watch Our Shifting Globe and read “Why We’re All Lava Surfers.” I think that having the information or knowledge to understand plate tectonics and how the theory developed and was later supported provides the insight necessary to really grasp being a “lava surfer” (which then makes lava surfing that much cooler!).
In addition, the connections that can be made between the Unit 4 driving question, claim testing, and collective learning will help students understand these key BHP concepts. Push students to incorporate these in their second attempt to answer the DQ in Lesson 4.3. This will help them apply these concepts to their thinking and writing, which will also aid in their mastery of this skill for Investigation writing. It would also probably be a good thing for students to explain to those flat-Earth proponents in their class how the Unit 4 DQ applies to their lives right now. This can be done by shedding light on the history and science to debunk this ridiculous assertion while also explaining that the flat-Earth theory is sorely lacking in any scientific evidence (other than conspiracy theories) to back it up. So really, this unit’s driving question has a ton of useful classroom potential!
About the author: Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, world history, and AP US government and politics for the past 10 years at the high school level. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and US History curricula.
Header image: Flat Earth map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893. Public domain.