THINKING CRITICALLY ABOUT THE FUTURE

Todd Nussen, BHP Teacher
New York, USA

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Milky Way, lightning, airglow—Kiribati, central Pacific Ocean. Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center. Public domain.

From preparing for the potential impact of a changing climate, to working out methods to feed a quickly growing population, it certainly seems that we’re concerned about our future. As history teachers, we feel obligated to make sure our students understand their world today. Don’t we also have a duty to teach our students how they can help sculpt the future?

Kurt Vonnegut once suggested we create a new presidential cabinet position—Secretary of the Future. He believed it would behoove the leaders of the free world to have someone who would advise policy makers on how to plan for the future we want and avoid the future we don’t. This seems natural since we—like other organisms—have an innate drive to have our genes live on in future generations. Humans are unique in that we also possess the remarkable ability to pass on not only our genes, but also information that future generations can use and build on. Humans, unlike any other organism, can actually plan for and even shape the future. If we’re “programmed” to secure a safe environment for our descendants, why not have a qualified adviser to protect our future as a community, a country, or, for that matter, as a species?

The Big History curriculum is designed to allow students to use ideas from the past to explore what the future might be like. It asks students to hypothesize what the future might hold for our planet and our species in one thousand years, one million years, even one billion years. In our Big History/World History course, we allot adequate time for examining current political, economic, and environmental issues in order to address a more immediate future. We ask students to think about a future they’ll be around for—one in the year 2050, for example. This is a future that our students can quite possibly influence, if they think critically and plan appropriately.

The activities in BHP Unit 10 ask students to do things like assemble teams of experts to help plan for a future millions or billions of years from now. Students might call on physicists and astronomers to devise a way for our species to survive in a sunless future, or recommend that botanists figure out how to cultivate crops on Mars. Activities like this are excellent ways to utilize Big History skills and are also a fun way to end the course; however, Big History/World History can also ask students to take part in molding the future they’ll be living in just decades from now.

To do this, students must first answer some daunting questions:

  • What are the most significant threats to maintaining our way of life?
  • Do we want to maintain our current way of living or change it?
  • How are we beginning to solve these problems?
  • How can we begin to influence the future, starting today?

An excellent place for students to look for answers to these questions is the BHP website itself. Gapminder.org and un.org are two of many other websites that I encourage my students to use to find out more about current issues that different regions and groups are facing.

Once the problem has been identified and researched, students choose a course of action to help rectify the problem by answering another set of questions:

  • Does money need to be raised?
  • Do more people need to be aware of this issue?
  • Will creating a petition show policy makers that this is an issue that many agree needs attention?
  • How can I construct a letter that demonstrates my concerns? Whom do I send it to?

If we want them not only to think critically about the near future, but also to shape it, students need to learn how to take action. MoveOn.org and millenium-project.org are two websites that teach students how to take action on issues they feel passionately about. These organizations help students distribute petitions, create charity fundraisers, and even show them how to write letters to policy makers. Not only does taking action allow students to use the Big History skills of supporting claims, using texts, constructing arguments, and thinking across disciplines, it also teaches them about the democratic process as well.

Abraham Lincoln said: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” If we encourage our students to think about the future and how they can shape it, we might just have an entire generation qualified to serve as Secretary of the Future.

About the author: Todd Nussen has been teaching world history for more than 10 years at Oceanside High School in New York. His schedule includes two ninth-grade BHP classes. Each 40-minute class has about 30 students.

MAINTAINING THE THROUGH LINE

Garry Dagg, BHP Teacher
Vasse, Australia

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Mother humpback and calf. NOAA Photo Library. CC BY 2.0.

So, you’ve seen the website. You’ve done the online training course. You’ve got the OK to launch this project on your unsuspecting class. You have got your head around 13.8 billion years of history that goes from the minute to the colossal, from bacteria to supernova. You have weighed the balance between science and the humanities and where your strengths and weaknesses will lie.

But now comes the real challenge: How do you tell this epic tale to a class full of fully, barely and partially engaged teenagers whose lives are filled with Instagram, puberty, future goals and nagging parents? The answer? By focusing on the through line and letting everything else take care of itself. Be a whale that comes up for breath, each Big History threshold a mighty spout visible to all, and then dives down again to various depths of the ocean of learning that this course allows.

We all have strengths and weaknesses—as educators, peers, parents, enthusiasts, and humans. We take these aspects into all parts of our lives and work with them every day; the Big History Project is no different. It can be daunting as an history teacher, as I am, to tackle the physics of the Big Bang—nature’s creation event; or the periodic table of the elements and its strange mix of numbers and letters.

While I will never be able to teach my students how ripples in the fabric of gravity have affected the expansion of the Universe, I can always bring them back to the great narrative of the Big History Project: Each stage has created Goldilocks Conditions that have allowed the next threshold of complexity to develop. In this way, my adaptation of the course reflects not just my teaching strengths, but also the aspects of the course that I know will engage and inspire my students. So, like a whale I come up for breath at each threshold and reiterate the point, consolidate the learning and ensure that all my students have grasped the majesty of each stage – stars lighting up, chemical elements exploding to life, our own Solar System being born—all the way to how their old age will look.

Then, when I dive down again into detail, like a whale chasing plankton or simply enjoying the warm waters, I choose with my students the depth of learning and teaching that we will engage in. As a history teacher, it will always have a historical bent; my handful of class periods on the chemical elements zoom in on the wondrous life of Dmitri Mendeleev, using the Life of a Star activity and Mendeleev articles to accompany the Big History video clips. Come Unit 6 and beyond, however, I dig deeper, accessing nearly all the resources from the site and telling the great story of human history and migration. At times it feels rushed and often it feels tangential, but throughout, the through line of Big History is maintained so students can follow the narrative, connect the thresholds, and breathe the narrative of history.

About the author: Garry teaches at Cape Naturaliste College in Vasse, Western Australia. He has taught Big History since 2013. All tenth-year students at his school take Big History. Classes are delivered over the course of a 20-week semester, with four 64-minute class periods per week. Garry says ,“All teachers in our department are BHP aficionados and love the perspective and depth it gives students.”

HELLO? IS ANYONE OUT THERE?

Jillian Turner, BHP Teacher
Sydney, Australia

My students LOVE talking about aliens; whether they’re out there, what they might look like, and how we might communicate with them. We started off Lesson 10.3 with the Drake Equation activity to get my students thinking critically about the future and the possibility of intelligent life beyond Earth. I love using the Drake Equation activity because it can be the catalyst for a moment of revelation for students who have never considered the implications of the sheer size of the Universe for finding alien life.

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Europa Rising – Drake Equation by Kevin Gill. CC BY 2.0.

I begin the lesson by posting 10 statements about the future around the room (feel free to download the template I created). Students write their name on the statements they believe are likely true. The statements range from, “Human-induced climate change will cause the extinction of our species” to “Technologically-advanced aliens will colonize our planet (and we’ll all die).” We discuss the statements with the most positive reactions to draw out why students have arrived at their conclusions.

After this discussion, I break the class up into six groups and give them each a step in the Drake Equation (as outlined on the activity worksheet). They have two minutes to decide on their response as a group. We then run through the activity with each group reporting their decision while I write our estimated chance of finding alien life on the board.

The last time we did this activity, my class ended with a number less than one, indicating that we don’t believe we will find intelligent life on another planet. We used this to consider our initial ideas about the future and to discuss whether anyone had changed their mind about versions of the future involving intelligent life beyond Earth.

Teachers are discussing this post and activity in the BHP online teacher community. Join in with any questions or insight you have!

About the author: Jillian Turner has taught history for 10 years and BHP for 4 years at both public and private secondary (high) schools in Sydney, Australia. Her school year lasts 40 weeks and she teaches the year-long BHP course to about 30 students per year.