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Students in some Michigan high schools learn history of nearly 14 billion years in one course

Sep 29, 2014

One of the assignments in the Big History course is to have students use their personal narratives to understand the importance of scale.
Credit User: Big History Project / facebook

 

If you had a typical American high school experience, chances are you trudged through the day, going from one period to another – maybe starting with algebra, then over to American lit, then chemistry or biology, on to history, and so on.

History in particular gets a bum rap, with grumbling about memorizing dates and names.

What's missing? A sense of all of this knowledge being connected.

Enter the Big History Project. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates has become a champion of this new way to teach history, and he's using his own money to develop this new history curriculum for high schools.

Bob Bain is a professor of history and education at the University of Michigan. He is also one of the advisers to Bill Gates and The Big History Project. As a former high school teacher of 26 years, Bain says most kids experience school as one isolated curriculum after another.

"The federal government claims that 40% of American high school students are chronically disengaged," says Bain.

In addition to disengaged kids, Bain believes most learning that's happening was didactic – students listen to and memorize other people's answers without thinking on their own.

Can the Big History Project's approach address these problems in history classes?

Bain thinks so.

"Big History" is a course invented by David Christian, a professor at Macquarie University in New South Wales, Australia. He started by applying the "everything-is-connected" idea to history classes. He integrated disciplines including biology and archeology, exploring topics like how life was created until all the way back the to Big Bang.

Then, Bill Gates happened to see Christian's teaching DVDs and fell in love with the course. He pushed to turn the lectures into pilot high school courses across the U.S., including 15 schools in Michigan.

Bain argues that students taking the new history class are coming away with a more connected world view and better critical thinking skills.

"They read and write around historical texts, scientific texts to produce arguments, narratives and explanations," says Bain.

Bain also says the response they received from the teachers are positive, because the course has provided instructional guidance in a variety of formats including a website, videos, peer support, and a 24-hour help line.

Bain adds the materials are and will remain free to all teachers out there.

"We want this to work in the most under-resourced schools – schools that couldn't afford textbooks yet they are getting very high quality materials from us," says Bain.

* Listen to the full conversation with Bob Bain above.

–Michelle Haun, Stateside