Big Bang, Big History and a big success story

30th November 2012 at 00:00
An international project is opening pupils' eyes to earth, life and humanity

You might expect a course called Big History to take the long view and a broad perspective. But the scale and ambition of the content of this international resource, being taught to the entire third year at Kyle Academy in Ayr since the start of term, has astonished the students.

"They started with the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago," says Rhiannon Lee (S3). "It's about history and science and so much more."

Big History began in universities in the 1980s, as an interdisciplinary field aimed at understanding the history of the cosmos, earth, life and humanity, by looking for common themes across all time scales. It draws on the latest findings in a range of disciplines from astronomy, anthropology and biology to economics, prehistory and environmental studies.

As a schools resource, it is a more recent development, which came to Scotland through a chance meeting at a conference between David Christian (pictured left), the history professor in Australia who launched the project, and Ollie Bray, depute head at Grantown Grammar, and Ian Stuart, deputy head at Islay High.

"What I like about David's ideas is that in his own learning journey he has started to challenge what knowledge is important to teach," says Mr Bray in his blog. "Like many teachers he started out teaching depth but realised in the end that breadth was just as important.

"Big History also challenges subject silos. It encourages people to take a more integrated look at science and humanities and realise that both have common ground and many parts of both curriculums are not far apart."

Recent developments in Scottish education have positioned us well to take advantage of first-class global resources such as Big History, says Joe Wilson, head of new ventures at the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

"Many are free. We want to use whatever we can to benefit our learners. When Ollie and Ian talked to us about Big History, we got in touch with the organisers in the US, who told us they couldn't take any more pilot schools," he says.

"I explained the education system in Scotland, and the fact that we have national bodies and could very quickly organise things with the local authorities. That got us into the pilot, along with the American and Australian schools."

Submissions from around the country were studied by Education Scotland, who selected South Ayrshire, represented by Kyle Academy, Ayr Academy and Marr College, explains Mr Wilson. "We then sent a history and a science teacher from each of those schools, funded by Bill Gates Catalyst 3, to the pilot school training in University of Michigan."

"That was excellent," says Grant Crawford, Kyle Academy's principal teacher of history and modern studies. "As well as learning the course, we got to meet teachers from the initial pilot and see examples of their pupils' work. There is no doubt it's a challenging course. But it's a fascinating new way to teach history, which really motivates our pupils."

The other two South Ayrshire schools have fitted the course into second- year electives, but Kyle Academy has aimed it at its third-years, is teaching it in double periods each week to four classes, and has timetabled chemistry teacher Danielle Hawkins, who attended the Michigan training, to team-teach and deliver lessons in the history department.

"Even so, we have a lot fewer hours to teach it than the American schools," she says. "So we are having to adapt the course to our curriculum and timetable."

Some development is also needed to make the course work well for Scottish learners, says principal teacher of religious and moral education Leigh Anderson, who is teaching the new course.

"Teaching styles seem to be different in the two countries. There are videos of people talking for 20 minutes. Our pupils aren't used to watching anything for that long without an activity," he explains.

"It is all part of the process of getting familiar with the content and resources - what works well with Scottish learners. It is challenging but I love this course. It's a whole new learning experience for the kids and for us."

Finding high-quality interdisciplinary projects is not always easy, says Kyle depute head Mary Byrne. "Our school strategy is to build in as many experiences that make meaningful connections across different areas, and add depth to learning, as we can. We're already working in Fair Trade, sustainable development, modern history and biodiversity.

"The team teaching in this new project is particularly valuable. I was looking for a pupil in a history class and found him in the library with Miss Hawkins, the chemistry teacher. "I said, `What's going on - I thought you were at history?' He said, `We are. We're at Big History.'"

In the real world, subjects are not encountered in isolation, says Kenneth Burns (S3) - "everything relates to everything else". So this kind of interdisciplinary learning in school is good preparation. I'm not good at art and don't usually enjoy it. But I did last year when we had a project on French and art. I just thought of it as French and I learned about the art as well."

But while learners love seeing connections across subjects, secondary teachers who step beyond the boundary of their discipline can feel uneasy. Most history teachers are outside their comfort zone with the Big Bang and the origin of the elements, but the structure of the course dispelled concerns, says Mr Crawford.

"It is still recognisably history to me because it is part of a narrative - the story of who we are and where we came from," he adds.

"It's a very well planned and structured course. All the links between curricular areas are identified and we're able to select and adapt content to suit our pupils and their learning."

Excited rather than apprehensive was how Miss Hawkins felt at the start of the whole experience, she says. "I wasn't going to know even all the science, so I'd learn a lot about that. Then there was all that history to find out about. I was setting out on a learning journey along with the pupils. It was exciting. It still is."

Professor Christian has been teaching Big History in universities for 20 years, he says. "We are now bringing it into schools. It's the sort of thing the Scottish Enlightenment did so well two centuries ago, and we are slowly coming back to it. The pilot schools will give us the feedback we need to improve.

"Next year, if all goes well, there will be many more Scottish schools teaching Big History."

The entire set of Big History resources will be released online free in 2013, when the pilots are complete. Teachers interested in using the resource now in beta can register at http:bit.lyRviKlA. Visit bit.lyyEt3hY

Course content that's on another planet

Big History consists of 10 units separated by "thresholds" - relatively short periods of time when major change happened. These include: The stars light up; New chemical elements; Life; Humans; Agriculture; and Modern revolution.

Unit topics are: Big History, Big Bang, Stars and Elements, Solar System and Earth, Life, Early Humans, Agriculture and Civilisation, Expansion and Interconnection, Acceleration and The Future.

Case study: Big History in action

"So we've been talking about evolution as a process and you explained your own understanding of it," Grant Crawford reminds his S3 Big History class. "It's about change and development and adapting to the environment. We talked about what evolution might alter in humans next. I told you about my dad, who comes from an industrial background and has big thumbs.

"So he can't use them in the dextrous way you do, to text on your mobile phones. Thumbs might evolve to become smaller and narrower. Now we're going to take a look at Charles Darwin and some of his ideas through a Horrible Histories video."

Up on the screen, a singing and dancing Darwin, accompanied by a funky gorilla on the drums, takes the class on a whistle-stop, but accurate, tour of evolution:

"So I joined HMS Beagle

Watched the eagle and the seagull

We studied rocks and plants, flowers, trees and bees and ants

Slept on hammocks without pillows

Eating rats and armadillos

Till I realised on reflection

It's natural selection."

At the end of the short film, Leanne is puzzled. "Cavemen and dinosaurs are all extinct," she says. "So why aren't monkeys?"

"Because they adapted better," Mr Crawford says. "We're going to take a look now at human evolution. You each have a number of pictures in front of you. We want you to rearrange them in what you think is the evolutionary order, leading all the way from fish in the sea to us humans."

It's an exercise in logic and application of ideas learned recently that leads to lots of discussion. "I don't normally enjoy group-work," says S3 pupil Andrew Hamilton.

"But on this course it's more fun. You are interacting with people and doing practical activities. You are making connections and learning at least as much as you would normally, working by yourself. It's a big mix of subjects."

That mix is what makes the difference, believes David Houston (S3). "In groups you have to take time out from your work to explain things to people. But with Big History everybody seems able to find something that interests them. Everybody can find aspects of what they can do. So we all listen and pay attention."

High points of the course so far for the pupils - all of whom seem engrossed - include making scale models of the solar system, which helped them grasp how enormous the sun is, compared with earth and other planets. "Then there's all that time since the universe began," says Rhiannon Lee (S3).

"At the beginning they told us we would be studying the history of the last 13.7 billion years and we were like `OK that's quite big'. But we had no idea how big until we looked at a scale model on a school football pitch of all that time, and how long humans have been here.

"It really opened our eyes."

Big History, www.bighistory project.comabout

Charles Darwin Evolution song, http:bit.lyHA0OFO.

Photo credit: Corbis

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