Bob Regan, BHP Director
Washington, USA

What does science have to do with history? What does the death of a star tell us about a civilization? What does a geologist have to say about how people lived? These are some of the most common questions we get from teachers and students new to Big History. The answer to all of these questions is, “a lot, actually.” Interdisciplinary inquiry is at the core of the Big History Project. When we draw from a range of disciplines, we expand our field of information and improve the questions we ask in history class.

Learning about history requires asking great, compelling questions and engaging a range of insights to answer them. It’s not a one-two sequence but more of a loop. Inquiry might start with a straightforward question. Then, we might gather a rich array of facts, concepts, and generalizations to help us answer that question. Arranging this material often leads to refinements of the question or even new questions altogether. The better the question, the more engaging the research. The more engaged the research, the better the opportunity for deep insights.

The C3 Framework for the Social Studies is organized around an “arc of inquiry” with four dimensions:

  1. Developing questions and planning inquiries
  2. Applying disciplinary concepts and tools
  3. Evaluating sources and using evidence
  4. Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

This arc of inquiry acknowledges the interplay between the questions we ask and the disciplinary tools we use, encouraging students “to investigate those questions more thoroughly through disciplinary (civic, economic, geographical, or historical) and multi-disciplinary means.” The National Council for the Social Studies highlights the interdisciplinary nature of social studies in its definition of the field:

Social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences.

The study of history is shaped by inquiry, but these questions are not constrained by the disciplines from which they emerge.  After all, students tend not to confine their questions and interests to any discrete categories of curriculum or discipline. Their interests are expansive and, at times, a bit meandering. This can make it incredibly challenging for us, as teachers, to keep up with our students. The very best teachers are able to step back and take the position of the lead learner in the classroom. Our most valuable skill is the ability to learn. But sometimes the fear of not knowing the answer leaves us reluctant to engage with new disciplines.

One of the simplest, yet most powerful activities in the Big History course is called “What Do You Know? Who Do You Ask?” This activity, which recurs throughout the course, asks teachers to propose a local historical question for their students to investigate. It might be a new archaeological discovery or a question about how people lived in a previous generation. The students are tasked with assembling a team of three experts to help them answer the question. They have to list the types of questions each expert might ask and why that collection of experts is the “best” team.

In Lincoln, Nebraska, one group of teachers asked their class to investigate the cause of a large “bison kill” (the bones of thousands of bison in a single location). The kill was thousands of years old and had been discovered recently. The students suggested experts from three different fields with three different objectives: a historian of Indigenous American culture to explore whether the kill was the result of a hunt; a biologist to determine if disease had killed the bison; and a geologist to consider if a nearby volcano eruption might have been the culprit. (One student suggested the billionaire Richard Branson, who could hire more experts, but that would have been cheating.) The goal of this activity is to help students understand how experts from various disciplines focus on different questions. Each of these questions presents new possibilities for the path of a historical inquiry. As they encounter the “What Do You Know? Who Do You As?” activities throughout the course, students develop a habit of interdisciplinary investigation.

So, back to the question of why we’re discussing science in a history course. Working across disciplines allows us to ask better, more engaging questions. These new questions help engage the expansive interests of our students. If we, as teachers, can let go of our fear of not knowing all the answers, we can teach our students to ask new questions and find answers for themselves.

Header image: Left: This is an artist’s impression of supernova 1993J, an exploding star in the galaxy M81 whose light reached us 21 years ago. By ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0.

Right: View of Victoria Harbour from the peak, Hong Kong. Photo © JKboy Jatenipat / Getty Images.

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