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.

Daily Life: Then, Way-Back-Then, and Now

Scott Collins, BHP Teacher
Illinois, USA

Think about your daily routine. Your cell phone alarm goes off. You swipe to disable the alarm, quickly check social media to catch up with the overnight goings-on, and manage to delay your emergence from under warm covers to start another day. Off to school. Off to work. On to the next thing that fills the unique niche that is your life.

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Morning commuters on the F Train bound for Manhattan. By Travis Ruse, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Nearly 7.5 billion people complete some version of this regimen each day. Variations differ wildly depending on geography, demography, and any other -ography you can think of. A Day in the Life from Lesson 9.0 explores these daily routines and how they compare across continents and throughout history. This activity asks Big History students to detail a day in the life of a person from 13,000 BCE, 1400 CE, 1750 CE, 1900 CE, and today. Students assign their individual a gender and a location from around the globe, and detail what he or she might do at dawn, midday, sundown, and night. For example, a student might describe a day in the life of a 24-year-old female in what is now Spain, describing that day if she had been alive in 13,000 BCE, 1400 CE, 1750 CE, 1900 CE, and today. This task requires students to detail some things about daily life even though that information doesn’t explicitly exist in recorded history for all periods. It will also probably require some additional research online. In most cases, context and logic can guide students in the completion of the assignment. I typically assign a different continent to students (or pairs of students). The rest is up to them. I steer clear of Antarctica because of its lack of population.

Students tend to enjoy immersing themselves in the history associated with A Day in the Life. They often go more in-depth with their research and analysis than the activity requires. Some vignettes give you a window into a lifestyle that is largely recreational and utopian. Others paint a picture of hardship and want. The activity never fails to provide perspective of how far we have come as a species; of what collective learning has cultivated. It brings in the larger BHP themes of surplus, agriculture, and acceleration quite nicely, setting the table for rich discussion and reflection.

For me, this is a must-do activity. I always enjoy the thoughtfulness that it inspires in students and the global perspective that follows. Inevitably, conclusions are drawn that maybe we don’t have it as bad as we sometimes think. Maybe we’re fortunate to live when we do. And just maybe that wake-up alarm sounds a little less harsh the next morning.

About the author: Scott Collins is a high school science teacher in Lemont, IL. In addition to BHP, he teaches AP biology, honors biology, and integrated science. His school is on a semester system. Scott’s eleventh- and twelfth-grade BHP classes run about 85 minutes long and focus heavily on the science content. About 60 students per year join him on the 13.8-billion-year journey.

How I Turned One Sceptical English Teacher into a BHP Believer

Charles Rushworth, BHP Teacher
Sydney, Australia

When I suggested at a recent staff meeting that it was possible to not only teach numeracy, but also causality, source and data analysis, and basic economic theory using historical economic data during one lesson, my colleagues looked at me as if I had lost my mind and started laughing. Once the laughter subsided, I invited one of my more sceptical colleagues into my class to help me deliver a lesson that accomplishes these aims—the activity Understanding the Consequences of the Global Depression from Lesson 9.6 of the Big History Project course. The way she delivered the activity would be up to her. Here’s how it went.

Understanding the Consequences of the Global Depression asks students to evaluate consequences of the Great Depression—and economic interdependence—after plotting and analyzing several countries’ GDP data from 1929-1939. Teachers with limited backgrounds in economics or mathematics, fear not: the activity is less about number-crunching and more about using data to tell a story. Besides, it can be delivered in a variety of ways depending on your circumstances and the interests of your students.

My colleague (who, I should mention, is an English teacher) chose to deliver this lesson as a group activity using a projector, a whiteboard, and the activity worksheets, which she had printed from the BHP website. Each student group was asked to pick a country and then plot its GDP data on the provided graph, which was projected onto the whiteboard. Once complete, they discussed how trends in countries’ GDPs might help explain the onset of World War II.

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This activity encouraged authentic collaboration among students (and staff!). It also provided them with the skills to interpret numeric data and transform it into a visual representation that is easy to understand and present to their peers. Furthermore, it reinforced the interdisciplinary approach that is prevalent throughout the course. In a nod to the interdisciplinary structure of BHP, this anecdote from my school also demonstrated that anyone—even an English teacher—can teach numeracy in a fun, engaging, and relevant manner.

About the author: Charles teaches Big History to grade 9 students at Liverpool Boys High School in Sydney, Australia. He has taught Big History since 2012, in both year-long and semester-long formats. His current BHP class meets once a day for 55 minutes at a time.