‘We must find a home for “Big History” in English schools. Perhaps it should be taught in geography’

This fascinating synthesis of science and history is very hard to pin down in curriculum terms, but our pupils would benefit if we could do it, writes one leading educationist

Kevin Stannard

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"Big History" synthesises history and the sciences in the creation of a unifying grand narrative. It takes a very long view across a cosmic scale, framed around eight game-changing "thresholds", beginning with the Big Bang and moving on to evolution, before dealing with the origins of agriculture and the dawn of the modern world.

Influences include the French Annales school of history and the work of William McNeill. Further back, it owes something to the synthesising vision of geographer extraordinaire Alexander von Humboldt.

The pioneering work of Professor David Christian caught the attention of Bill Gates, who financed and helped to secure the translation of the Big History Project from higher education to American high schools in 2011.

It’s big, but is it history? Homo sapiens don’t make an entrance until threshold six of eight. The origin of the universe, formation of planets and evolution of life on earth – these need the input of science teachers in order to rise above rote. Even the penultimate threshold, the appearance of agriculture, isn’t conventionally considered to be history – being a terrain more comfortably occupied by archaeologists, anthropologists and geographers.

'The victim of a pincer movement'

Big History has suffered the ad hominem objection to the involvement of Gates, whose promotion of the Common Core standards and associated reductive testing raised the ire of US educators, predisposing them to write off Big History as the latest vanity project of a billionaire.

Big History also encountered a pincer movement: some have objected to its "anti-humanist" turn (seeing something reactionary and determinist in setting humans within a cosmic framework); others opposed its transnational tendency, its politically correct cosmopolitanism and the loss of "national" perspective in history.

More tellingly, some argue that Big History is not a suitable substitute for "real" history – which dives rather than skates, and teaches historical skills like evaluating different points of view, learning how to read a text and how to evaluate sources, and understanding human motivation.

The kind of history we teach depends on who we are teaching and why we think it matters. In the US, Big History is usually offered as an advanced course to senior grades. In an English context, such students may already have chosen their disciplines. Below age 16, the dilemma common to non-core national curriculum subjects intrudes: are we teaching a universal entitlement to everyone, or a more narrowly-focused set of subject skills to a select few? When subjects are forced to compete for students in a "free market", these two imperatives inevitably collide. Thus, Year 9 history teachers are teaching the whole cohort for the last time, while also trying to encourage as many as possible to choose history for specialist further study.

In Key Stage 3 there is a lot to be said for an integrated programme exploring the place of human beings in the Kosmos. But this isn’t history as we know it. In an English educational setting, and given the overlap of human and physical perspectives, it looks a lot more like what geography ought to be.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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Kevin Stannard

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