The Big History Project, a history curriculum pilot program involving 1,200 schools across the nation, is underway in Brookwood’s eighth grade as students tackle the subject of history in a whole new fashion. “We were one of the first schools in the country to be accepted into the pilot program last year and one of the first middle schools in the program,” says Grade 8 History teacher and advisor Peter Abramson, who has taught at Brookwood for 12 years.
Originally developed by professor Dr. David Christian, of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and nurtured and funded in large part by Bill Gates, Big History may just change forever the way world history is taught. Rather than examining world history as discreet events that simply happened over time, Big History looks at world history as an interconnected continuum of shifts, in the world and on Earth. In Big History these shifts are called “Thresholds.” “At its core [the program is constructed] to tell the story of the Universe and to explain mankind's role in that story,” says Peter.
He adds: “At its essence, the story can be told in eight major parts, each which centers around a particular threshold, where we see a major change take place. At those threshold moments, there exists "Goldilocks Conditions" where things are just right for a brand new level of complexity to arise.” The eight thresholds are:
Threshold 1: The Big Bang (“Beginning at the Beginning. As far as we know.”)
Threshold 2: Stars Light up (“How Stars are born”)
Threshold 3: New Chemical Elements ("How stars forge matter in the Universe”)
Threshold 4: Earth & the Solar System (“How tasty morsels of gas and rock created our home”)
Threshold 5: Life on Earth (“How life evolves, adapts, and thrives”)
Threshold 6: Collective Learning (“How humans are Different”)
Threshold 7: Agriculture ("How farming sows the seeds of civilization”)
Threshold 8: The Modern Revolution (“Why change accelerates faster and faster")
The Project fits well into Brookwood’s dynamic, innovative culture, because it “is designed to be adapted to the individual needs of each school,’ says Peter. “One of the strengths of the curriculum is that it allows teachers to develop their own individual program using the resources of the Big History Project,” Peter says.
Dr. Christian developed the idea and his original course as “a desire to go beyond specialized and self-contained fields of study to grasp history as a whole. “Silo-ized” approaches to the subject were what drove the professor to create a class that would, “examine our past, explain our present, and imagine our future.” He wanted to examine history through a synthesis of a broad range of academic disciplines -- of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy, and other subject matter. Big History, Christian says, offers “a unified account.”
“In my opinion, I believe that this is a very important way to teach history. Most history courses are limited in scope and scale (by necessity), because time is limited and it is important to study the details of historical events,” says Peter. “But, I think, it is also important to see the grand overview of everything and to see how we got here and to make predictions of where we are going.”
With the collaboration and funding of Bill Gates central to its development, the Big History Project boasts a remarkable website rich with information, visuals, videos, interviews, collaborative tools and more. The subject, on the web, is quite literally brought to life.
(To read more about Bill Gates and his support of The Big History Project read: So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class ...
Here at Brookwoood, Peter’s class makes good use of this great resource. “The class is almost entirely digital,” Peter says. Most of the content will be on the Big History website, and I use a variety of technological resources to collaborate with students. All assignments and announcements are given to and received from students via Google Classroom. They are able to write papers and complete homework assignments via Classroom, and I can see and assess their work through this.”
Peter adds: “At Brookwood, Big History itself is taught only in Grade 8, but it specifically reinforces ideas taught in Grades 6, 7, and 8 science and hopefully explains how those concepts fit in to the overall story of the Universe.”
“One of the most important goals, in my opinion, of teaching and teaching history, in particular, is to get students to be able to think critically. It is also, perhaps, the most difficult task to accomplish,” Peter explains. “That is, enabling students to see both sides of an issue, to be open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, to reason through issues, to demand that claims be backed by evidence, to deduce conclusions from available facts and to solve problems – all of the things we see as ‘higher-level learning.’ But that can only be accomplished with knowledge of the subject.
“I believe that the approach of Big History is the most focused curriculum to help students practice and improve on their critical thinking skills. By approaching the subject from a variety of perspectives and always challenging them to see connections and to make arguments, it achieves a great balance between specific content knowledge and allowing them to develop the necessary critical thinking skills,” he adds.
Peter also believes Big History prepares Brookwood students very well for the coursework of secondary schools. “Our students go off to a wide variety of schools, and this class should give them the framework to give them the context of their history classes in secondary school. If you think of history classes as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, Big History can be thought of as the cover picture on the box that shows how everything fits together.”