BHP Students Excel on NY Regents History Exam

BHP Team

In New York State, students must pass Regents Examinations—statewide, standardized exams in core high school subjects—to graduate high school with a Regents Diploma. At the end of tenth grade, New York students take the Global History and Geography Regents Exam. At Oceanside High School, teachers found that the group of students who had taken the Big History Project course (BHP) the year before, as ninth graders, achieved a higher passing rate compared to the subset of students who had not.

Download the case study here.


Can you feel the focus?! © Getty.

For the June 2016 Global History and Geography Regents Exam, 89 percent of Oceanside High School tenth-grade students passed (432 out of 483 students). This group of 483 included Regents-level students, as well as those with disabilities, English Language learners (ENL), and other students with learning accommodations. This group also contained 96 former BHP students with a similar mix of learning levels and needs.

In the 2014/15 school year, these 96—who were then in the ninth grade—completed the year-long BHP course. The following school year, they progressed to tenth grade and the Global History II class. They were randomly assigned to one of twelve sections taught by one of six different teachers. At the end of the school year, all tenth graders sat for the Global History and Geography Regents Exam.

High Expectations Met with Success
After the Regents Exam results came in, BHP teachers wanted to know: “How did the former BHP students’ exam performance compare to those who did not take BHP?” So with some confidence but also fingers crossed, they calculated the passing rate for the group of former BHP students.

“We were prepared with explanations like ‘It was only our first year teaching the course’ or ‘Give us a break, we’re the first school on Long Island to do this.’ But we didn’t have to use them,” said BHP teacher Jason Manning.

The results? BHP students had a 96 percent passing rate on the Regents Exam, outperforming their non-BHP peers by 7 percent.

“It’s rewarding to know that implementing a course that we’re excited about led to quantifiable student success,” said BHP teacher Todd Nussen.

Engaging Course Builds Skills
Why did this happen? Mitch Bickman, Director of K–12 Social Studies for the Oceanside School District, believes that because the course narrative is more engaging to students, they are more motivated to learn. The course also offers more opportunities to hone literacy skills. “Students focus heavily on historical thinking skill and application of knowledge and are better prepared to authentically apply that learning across different mediums.”

Teacher Jason Manning believes the big difference is that in BHP, there’s teaching and learning that builds more than a fact base.

“I used to teach facts such as which Roman emperor built the Coliseum. Now we learn how to question, how to think about problems and critically consume information. Students walk away with an understanding of the conditions needed to build such a structure and the impact it had on history. These skills also improve the students’ writing, and even the smallest gains here can have a major impact on their scores.”

Perfect Timing for More Rigorous Exam
This is a particularly important time to focus on curriculum efficacy as changes in the Regents Exam are ahead. In the next few years, the exam will be based solely on the tenth-grade Global History and Geography II content, and will focus more on skills and less on content recall.

Mitch Bickman is optimistic that Oceanside students will be ready for the more rigorous format.

“As of 2015/16, we’ve entirely replaced our Global History and Geography I course for ninth graders with Big History. This is a great opportunity for Big History teachers to share the academic benefits of this course with New York State social studies teachers, as many will now be thinking about ways to either modify or replace their Global History and Geography I course so that students develop the skills they need to pass [the Regents Exam]. Based on these results, we feel we made the right choice.”

Download the case study here.

Thinking Like a Big Historian

Lucy Bennison Laffitte, MEd, PhD
Executive Committee, International Big History Association
North Carolina, USA

One of the ways to think like a Big Historian is to use the concepts that describe phenomena from one sector – cosmos, Earth, life, or humanity – as metaphors to understand phenomena in another sector. For instance, when we say that stars are born, develop over time, and die, we’re borrowing terms (birth, development, death) from the LIFE sector, and using them as metaphors to help us understand the COSMIC sector. This transdisciplinary method—using categories from one sector as metaphors to understand phenomena in another sector—is thinking like a Big Historian. It’s a literary method applied to scientific data, and unique to the field of Big History. It makes human ways of knowing explicit in our understanding of science, and is a very powerful tool for citizens of the twenty-first century.


Left: Spores under a fern leaf by kaibara87, CC BY-SA 2.0. Center: Colorado Blue Spruce cones by JJ Harrison, CC BY-SA 3.0. Right: Gazania flower by I, MarcusObal, CC BY-SA 3.0.

To illustrate how useful Big History thinking can be, I want to clarify the baffling morphology of land plants, answering this question: Why do some plants have cones, others spores and thalli, and still others flowers? In this case, I’ll be working within the LIFE sector, but I’ll be using the life history categories of land animals as metaphors to understand the life history of land plants. Hang with me.

Evolutionary Challenges and Responses

Two important evolutionary challenges emerged for plants and animals as they crawled out of the water and onto land:

  1. How do sperm swim to egg? Remember: Sex evolved in water and became dependent upon a watery medium to consummate fertilization.
  2. How is the developing embryo cared for, and then dispersed from home? The young find “room and board” in water and can float away from their parents’ territory in currents. Not the case on land.

Let’s delve into how animals solved these two problems. Vertebrate land animals evolved from fish to amphibians, from amphibians to reptiles, and from reptiles to mammals. (The more we learn about birds, the more we realize they are essentially flying reptiles.)

  • Amphibians solve the problem of getting sperm to egg by returning to the water for reproduction. The male releases sperm in the water so they can swim to the eggs laid there by the female. Amphibians solve the problem of providing the developing embryo with “room and board” by keeping the young in water, separating them physically from the adults. Adults live and feed on land while the young do so as water-borne tadpoles or larvae.
  • Reptiles solve the problem of getting sperm to egg by using internal fertilization. The male releases the sperm in the moist environment inside the female. Reptiles solve the problem of providing the developing embryo with “room and board” with a leathery egg buried in the moist ground in an area away from home.
  • Mammals solve the problem of getting sperm to egg in the same way as reptiles, with internal fertilization. They solve the problem of providing care for the developing embryo by retaining the young inside the body of the female, which ensures a temperature-controlled home and a steady supply of food and oxygen-enriched blood. Mammals also extend the length of time the young are cared for, suckling them in built nests and providing lessons on “culture.”

So how can this help us understand our opening question—why do plants have spores, thalli, cones, or flowers?

Applying Big History Thinking to Plant Sex

Using Big History thinking, we can turn the three terms—amphibian, reptile, and mammal—into metaphorical categories to better understand plants: the amphibian-like plants, the reptile-like plants, and the mammal-like plants. Let’s use these metaphorical categories to understand how sperm gets to egg and the developing embryo is cared for in plants.

The amphibian-like plants include the mosses and ferns. Mosses include an assembly of short, primitive land-plants called liverworts and hornworts. Ferns include lycopods, horse tails, and whisk ferns. These plants share the amphibian-like life style, conducting their sexual activity in the wet splash zone. During the Carboniferous period, these plants grew to the size of trees. So how do tree-size plants have sex in the splash zone? With the “invention” of spores and a specialized organ called a thallus, of course.

Mosses and ferns use the wind to drop spores to the splash zone. In the presence of water, the spores grow into a separate structure called a thallus. It’s on the thallus that the antheridia (testes) produce the sperm that swims to the egg in the archegonia (ovary). Fertilization creates an embryo, which sprouts on the rhizoid-fed thallus. Thus, in mosses and ferns, there is some care of the developing young. In the fern group, the tallest of these amphibian-like plants, the thallus disintegrates as the embryo matures into a full-grown fern.


The reptile-like plants, called conifers (cone-bearing plants), have figured out how to have sex without water; they do it with cones. Conifers have two different types of cones—male and female. Male cones are staminate, and contain sperm. Female cones are ovulate, and contain eggs.

How do cones, up high in a tall tree in the middle of a desert, help conifers get sperm to egg? The staminate cones release thousands and thousands of tiny, four-cell sperm in a fluted, wind-loving pollen grain. The ovulate cones contain scores of layered, prickly, pollen-collecting scales that crack open to let the pollen in. Each scale contains two winged ovules, side by side. Each ovule contains the unfertilized egg, which is surrounded by a water-tight seed coat. When a pollen grain gets caught in an open scale, the pollen grows a tube of tissue that delivers the sperm in its tip precisely to the opening of the coated egg. Sensing successful fertilization, the scales close tight, protecting the developing embryos in a bulky, inedible cone for a year or two. When the embryos are ready, the cone scales reopen and send the winged seed twirling through the wind, far from home. The seed coat keeps the embryo alive for years. The seed itself contains a juicy morsel of food for germination, prepared by the mother ahead of time. In this way, conifers use cones to get sperm to egg without water and to care for the embryo during development and germination.

Mammal-like plants, called flowering plants, care for the developing embryo during development and germination in the same way as conifers. Flowering plants, however, have figured out how to get sperm to egg, and then disperse the young great distances from home. They nurture their young long into the future by ingeniously enlisting the aid of helper animals. This might be the greatest symbiotic story of all time.

Flowering plants (for the most part) do not rely on the inconstant wind to deliver sperm to egg. Instead, they’ve “hired” one delivery service to carry the pollen grains to precisely the right place for a pollen tube to hand-carry the sperm to the egg. These mammal-like plants have hired yet another delivery service to pick up the developing embryo–which remains safe inside a watertight seed–and drop it off miles from home in a pile of nutritious fertilizer. These plants engage the first delivery service with colorful landing platforms, fragrant scents, easy-to-understand directions, and edible rewards. In other words, they build a flower. They engage the second delivery system with bright nuggets of fruit flesh or nutmeats. Flowers allure specific insect pollinators to follow meticulous delivery instructions, and then reward them with a payment. Flower fruits allure animal dispersal agents to ingest seeds and deposit them in piles of defecated fertilizer. Flowering plants are the mammals of the plant world, facilitating sperm to egg and long-term care of the young. And all of this is done completely independent of water.

Big History Thinking: A Powerful Tool

As these examples demonstrate, Big History thinking offers us a powerful tool for understanding the vast complexity that has emerged since the Big Bang. With the simplified categories of amphibian-like, reptile-like, and mammal-like, we can understand and even remember why plants bothered to evolve such odd structures as spores, thalli, cones, and flowers. Take some time to study the figures below, tracking the morphology of the corollary structures in plants and animals as they solved the problems of moving from water to dry land.


How animals and plants transitioned from water to land: Getting sperm to egg. Click to enlarge.


How animals got from water to land: Protecting the developing embryo. Click to enlarge.

About the author: Lucy Bennison Laffitte, MEd, PhD, has been teaching science in-context for over 30 years. She has taught in the field, in the classroom, and online. She has published in print, on air, and on the web—authoring a newspaper column, founding an award-winning environmental radio program, creating certificate programs, and developing digital learning objects for public television.

Engaging Students with Video

Bob Bain, Big Historian
Professor of History & Educational Studies, University of Michigan
Michigan, USA

The Big History Project course has over 80 short videos that capture short, engaging lectures by compelling and entertaining speakers – such as David Christian and John Green. It is easy to fall into the trap that these videos are self-explanatory, that learning from them is effortless. All students must do is sit back and enjoy.


The History of Everything

This is not the case. Teachers need to show students how to read videos carefully and critically. And, unlike written text that students can go back to and reread or puzzle over, videos move so fluently that it is often difficult for students to pause or go back a few seconds to review.

It is important to remember to treat videos as you would any text, making sure that students know why they are viewing the video and what they should be attending to as they watch it.

There are four steps in engaging students with the BHP videos:

1. Set the purpose
To start, you should begin each video by posing a question to the students and asking them to think about how this video helps in answering it. Some if not all the BHP videos begin with questions that make for good short discussion before showing the video. For example, a video in Unit 4 asks, “What was the young Earth like?” – a great prompt for a student quick-write or short discussion.


What Was the Young Earth Like?

2. Establish points to discuss
After setting the purpose, make sure students know what they are supposed to be doing or thinking about while watching the video. It’s useful to establish a few things for students to identify for discussion afterward, with the class.

You might establish a video routine where students are always searching for:

  • the video’s main point
  • confusing places in the video
  • interesting points in the video
  • how the video supports or challenges other texts in the course

Before watching, students might create four columns or boxes labeled “Main Ideas,” “Confusing Points,” “Interesting Points,” and “Supports or Challenges Text,” and use the video’s time stamp and a phrase to mark points for later discussion.

Or, you might want to use prompts specific to each video. The questions listed on the video transcripts are particularly useful if you alert students to them in advance.

3. Watch the video more than once and/or use the written transcript
All of BHP’s videos are complicated, and all are interesting and enjoyable. Therefore, you should plan on encouraging – or requiring – students to view the videos more than once, adding something more to the second viewing than the first.

For example, before the second viewing, give students the transcript and ask them to read it, marking the main points, confusing sections, and interesting points worth further discussion. Then show the video again.

Or, you could have students watch the video a second time with the “Pause at Key Points” button clicked on. The video will halt at key places, giving students time to write or giving the class time to discuss.

In a sense, these practices are the video version of the three close reads that BHP urges for most texts in the course.

4. Discuss each video
The discussion should begin with students’ thinking about the main ideas, and cover the confusing and interesting points in the video. Then, ask students what else supports or challenges the ideas presented in the video.

Another good practice during the discussion is to ask students how the speaker supported their claims. Did they offer any evidence? Was there a logical explanation for the claim? Did they seem to use intuition or reference authority? Or did the speaker assume their authority would be enough to support their claims? You might even show the video one last time, asking students to focus only on claim testing.

Many teachers use the videos to flip the classroom. However, it is quite important to remember that your students will need a clear set of purposes before watching the videos outside of class, and therefore it is important to make the time in class to prepare them for the work outside of class.

Of course, depending upon your students’ access to the course website outside of class, flipping the classroom this way may not be appropriate.

About the author: Bob Bain is a professor of educational studies and history at the University of Michigan. Bob was working on the Big History Project even before it began—that is, even before the BHP pilot launched in six schools in the US and three in Australia. A former high school teacher who has spent more than 25 years in secondary classrooms, Bob studies teaching and learning history and the social sciences by studying teachers teaching and students learning history and other “stuff.”