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.


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.


Greg Dykhouse, BHP Teacher
Michigan, USA

One  great feature of the Big History Project curriculum is the abundance of tables and graphs that students must make sense of throughout the course. Providing opportunities for students to hone their interpretation and critical thinking skills as related to data displays is valuable in developing a “master historian.” It also leads to great inquiry and a genuine sense of wonder from students.

Graphing Population Growth from Lesson 9.2 centers on a display of human population growth over the last 10,000 years. By analyzing and conjecturing about this graph, students are tasked with making sense of changes in population growth pre- and post-Modern Revolution.


Human population graph between 10,000 years ago and today

Reinforced throughout this activity is the concept of scale, which is central to the BHP course. The story of population changes over different scales of time and space. Reinforce this theme with students when interpreting the graph: What is the time and space of the graph? What information is on the axes? What story is told?

Then, have your students conjecture about why the story of population growth has unfolded in the way it has. Once they’ve had a chance to offer some ideas, remind them to consult the threshold cards (which I hope you’ve displayed along a wall in your classroom, as they’re a great reference throughout the year). Can they label any of the Big History thresholds along the population growth curve? Is there a correlation between the emergence of a threshold and the direction or slope of the curve? Speculate answers together, write some offerings on the board, and then let the students complete the questions from the activity. Discuss their answers together.

To close, ask students, “When you turn 50, how will your world be different from today’s world, assuming current trends continue? What challenges may you have that your parents or grandparents never had?” This visual is an effective tool to generate wonder and urgency.

About the author: Greg Dykhouse has been teaching at Black River Public School in Holland, MI, for over 20 years; he has taught Big History there since 2011. He teaches the course to four sections of ninth graders that meet three times a week for 85-minute blocks.