Rachel Hansen, Big History Teacher
Iowa, USA

“The situation today is like flying one of those pedal-driven contraptions with flapping wings that people created before discovering the laws of aerodynamics. At first, when the flight begins, all appears well. The airman has been pushed off the edge of the cliff and is pedaling away. But the aircraft is slowly falling.”


Aerial Machine invented by Dr. W. O. Ayres of New Haven (1885). Scientific American published May 9, 1885. Public domain.

This is the description of “civilizational flight” from Daniel Quinn’s novel, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. In Quinn’s metaphor, our civilization is a poorly designed aircraft, doomed for collapse and on a dangerously misunderstood flight. We’ve made an unfortunate miscalculation, mistaking freefall for flight.

The Rise, Fall, and Collapse of Civilizations, in Lesson 7.2, raises thought-provoking questions about civilizations that experienced this same disastrous “civilizational flight.” What I appreciate most about this activity is the simplicity of the directions and the freedom for students to explore the causes of societal collapse on their own.

Students choose three civilizations of the past, and then begin conducting their investigation. Included in their research is the reason for collapse, the claim testers, theory alignment (internal weakness, external conquests, environmental disasters), and citations. The activity is a great way to put the claim testers to work, and an engaging opportunity for students to build their skills in using evidence in argumentation. It also makes for an incredibly insightful Socratic seminar discussion, filled with more questions than answers.

We set up this activity with some visual note-taking on Jared Diamond’s TED Talk, “Why Do Societies Collapse?”. In his talk, Diamond outlines a five-point framework for collapse, using the Greenland Norse to illustrate his thesis:

● Human impacts on the environment
● Climate change
● Relations with friendly neighbors
● Relations with hostile neighbors
● Political, economic, social, and cultural factors

Our students find questions of societal collapse intriguing. This activity stirs up their intellectual curiosity, which compels them to find answers to challenging questions and ask more of their own. What happened to the Anasazi? Why did the Mayan civilization collapse just after its peak? To what extent does our own civilization show warning signs of collapse?

About the author: Rachel Hansen is a high school history and geography teacher in Muscatine, IA. Rachel teaches the BHP world history course over two 180-day semesters to about 50 ninth- through twelfth-grade students each school year.


Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Teacher
Louisiana, USA

What better way for students to research early civilizations than to figure out what made them rise and thrive—and then create a museum exhibit to showcase their chosen civilization’s legacy? (Oh, and then “prove” that they were the “best” early civilization.) Early Civilizations Museum Project  from Lesson 7.1 of Big History is one that generates a ton of enthusiasm from my students, year after year.

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Students really go “all in” as they work in groups to create walk-through museum exhibits on different agrarian civilizations (such as Babylon, Egypt, the Inca, Rome). They produce a variety of assets for their exhibits—written pieces, videos, interactive elements—which means the creative potential is endless. There’s something of interest for all learners, and each group member can play to their strengths. It also helps that groups are competing against one another in order to prove that their civilization was the “best.”

Students not only research the history of their chosen civilization, but also its cultural legacy—including art, architecture, literature, and science. I also make sure students include information on the social and gender hierarchies of the civilization. My classes have created music videos, news reports, interactive games, and stunning visuals.

In order to up the stakes, I usually offer a prize to the group that is voted as having the best civilization. Students aren’t allowed to vote for their own group, but I’ve found that they actually vote based on which group has the most compelling argument—rather than for their friends. You might also involve the entire school in this project by setting up a museum exhibition for other classes to explore and having other teachers and administrators judge the presentations. This has consistently been the project that my students have rated as the best Big History activity.

About the author: Bridgette’s been teaching BHP as a semester-long history course since 2012 . She teaches ninth and twelfth graders at Saint Scholastica Academy, a private school for girls. Bridgette teaches 120 students a year in three 90-minute sessions per day.



BHP Team

The International Baccalaureate (IB) and BHP share a common focus on student inquiry and interdisciplinarblog1-international_ib_logoy learning. Several IB schools from around  the world have adopted the Big History Project course and found it to be a natural fit within the IB framework. To make it even easier for IB schools to adopt BHP, the two organizations have established a formal partnership aimed at sharing best practices and integrating resources. If you’re already teaching in an IB school, check out BHP’s curriculum, professional development, and BHP Teacher Community offerings. If you’re already teaching BHP and want to expand the approach across the curriculum, the IB is a natural next step.

Learning Story: Koel Ray, Aga Khan Academy, Hyderabad, India


Koel Ray and students at the Aga Khan Academy, Hyderabad

Learn how Koel Ray introduced and expanded the BHP course offering, now in its third year. She’s even adapted activities to connect it to Ajanta and Ellora, two local cave sites. Download Koel’s learning story.

“[BHP] does answer some questions but those answers lead to further questions, and I thought that was really beautiful considering it was coming from Grade 8.”Koel Ray

Learning Story: Thomas Stabb, Dwight School, New York City


Thomas Stabb and students at the Dwight School, New York City.

Thomas Stabb is the type of teacher that is always looking for new angles. Drawing from the insights of multiple disciplines, BHP is aligned with the way Thomas likes to teach. Download Thomas’s learning story.

“BHP provides students with an enormous worldview.” – Thomas Stabb

Scope and sequence

To help IB teachers see how BHP fits into the IB framework, Koel Ray from Aga Khan Academy and Chris Steussy from San Diego International High School developed this scope and sequence that reflects their classrooms. Download the BHP Scope and Sequence.

Learn more about the IB’s Middle Years Programme

Watch a brief narrated slide presentation in which Emanuele Pestoli, curriculum manager for the IB, gives a quick overview of the Middle Years Programme.