Big History: Even Students Who Hate History Love This
“To understand ourselves, we need to know the very large story, the largest story of all.”
Dr. David Christian
The Big History Project is truly living up to its name: BIG. The mind-opening form of history instruction for the high school (or gifted middle school) level has become a big deal across the country.
According to a story in the New York Times Magazine, Big History started out in just five high schools in 2011. This year, it will be taught in 1,200 schools. And California will make it available to all 1,300 of its high schools, in place of traditional world history. Thousands more schools and teachers have expressed an interest. And Big History is not a mandate – it’s an option, typically initiated by a teacher who wants to make it happen.
So, What is Big History?
Big History is a multi-disciplinary approach to literally all of history. It starts with the Big Bang Theory and then divides this grand history into a series of “thresholds” or major changes that lead to greater complexity. For example: the birth of stars, the creation of the earth, the emergence of life, and the appearance of humans. Essentially, it deals with very big stuff.
The course is often team-taught by a history and science teacher, since it involves cosmology, geology, and evolutionary biology in addition to anthropology and general history.
While certain ideas behind Big History have been around since the 19th century, its current incarnation is the brainchild of scholar David Christian, who first taught this vision of history at the college level 25 years ago. With the backing of Bill Gates, who happened to see Dr. Christian’s course, a team headed by this scholar has developed free curriculum for a full-year course.
As Dr. Christian says, the purpose of Big History is to help us comprehend our place in the universe. With this link between total history and self-knowledge, it’s no wonder that teens find it so engaging.
Here’s a two-minute promotional video for Big History featuring ninth-grade students who love taking the course:
Want to get more of a taste? Here is a TED Talk by Dr. Christian, who attempts to squeeze something this big into 18 minutes. It has been viewed more than 4 million times:
Where Can You Learn More Big History?
The Big History Project Website has a free, beautifully done, short course version of Big History on a series of scrolling pages. The site has a variety of mini-lectures by Dr. Christian, well-crafted graphics, text summaries, interactive activities, and short quizzes. It takes four to six hours, and gives a good grounding in the basics of Big History.
Among various ways to access course resources and versions of this fantastic history, three are worth noting:
- The famous Green Brothers have a YouTube Crash Course in Big History that’s very entertaining.
- The Khan Academy has pulled together an extensive presentation of Big History curriculum that appears to include much of the full course’s materials.
- The Big History Project itself has a YouTube page for course videos.
There is also a 48-lecture version (24 hours in total) offered by The Great Courses company and taught by David Christian. This is college-level and on the expensive side, but is sometimes on sale. (Plus, check if your local library carries it. And, by the way, this is what turned Bill Gates on to the project.)
As The Great Courses website notes, there are many fascinating facts in the course, such as:
- The entire expanse of human civilization—5,000 years—makes up a mere two percent of the human experience.
- Approximately 98 percent of human history occurred before the invention of agriculture.
- At present, we cannot drill deeper than about 7 miles into the Earth, which is just two percent of the distance to the center (4,000 miles away).
- Traveling in a jet plane, it would take five million years to get from our solar system to the next nearest star.
Here at Learning Liftoff, we love big, mind-opening ways to learn. To keep up on all we cover, be sure to subscribe and you won’t miss a thing!
Michael Solow has worked as a teacher, journalist, and commercial writer/creative director. Michael has also taught high school English and junior high math, gaining his teaching certification from Vassar College and a master's degree in the teaching of writing and literature from George Mason University. His writing has been published in the New York Times, the San Francisco Review of Books, TheMorningNews.org, and the Hemingway Review. He is the proud dad of two grown daughters and the happy husband of an elementary school librarian.