## Saturday 15 August 2020

### Teaching Big History - II - Learning about Scale

We have now moved on to understanding the importance of scale. This unit necessitated the use of mathematical tools - especially ratios and proportions. After creating a personal timeline, we discussed how the timeline would change if a human could live for a million years - what would be included, what would be left out. Students viewed a fascinating video on how a bunch of filmmakers created a realistic scale model of the Solar System on a dry lake bed in Nevada. They saw how a model of the earth the size of a marble would require about 7 miles of space to accurately represent the scale and proportion of the Solar System. This was a real eye opener for the students who have seen inaccurate pictures of the solar system from a young age in books and magazines.

Once exposed to the concept of scale, students had to create timelines using string. Due to lockdowns, we had to do this activity online - with each team member in a different house! The first team was tasked with plotting events from the Big Bang on a 20 ft string, while the second team plotted key events in human history on a similar sized string. It was a fascinating activity as each group translated the years into proportionate distances on the string. Team A hit a wall when they realised that their measure of feet and inches was too large to represent the micro distance of human existence on the string representing the history of the universe. Team B, meanwhile, quickly translated their unit into metres, centimeters and millimeters - making their task much easier. After much work punching in numbers, calling out answers, measuring and marking on unwieldy string, both teams successfully completed the task. When they laid out the string - stretching across one student’s living room and another’s bedroom to hall to kitchen, kids got a glimmer of understanding about scales.  Honestly, this felt more like a math class than a history class.

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Another activity which brought home the concept of zooming out to see a bigger picture involved a presentation where only partial bits of a picture are revealed in each slide. We did this as a class activity and I encouraged the children to share their observations as I kept scrolling through the presentation. They thought the first picture was a robe or a starfish but as we zoomed out we saw it was the crest of a rooster. As we kept zooming out a story started building up. There were many Aahs and Oohs as the students were surprised to see how the storyline kept changing. It was encouraging to note that they demonstrated sharp observation skills - spotting the cruise liner before it came into view, identifying the TV perspective of a picture and even that an image was actually a postal stamp. The underlying message that perspectives change as we see the bigger picture was subtly put across.

The culminating activity for the Unit on Scale had children plotting events on different timelines. I held this class on Zoom and used the Breakout Room feature to divide the students into 4 groups. Two of the timelines spanned a vast number of years - Timeline 1 started at the Big Bang and ended with the Coming of Humans. Timeline 3 covered human history from the 3rd Millennium to man’s landing on the moon. The other two timelines dealt with a single human’s history - Timeline 2 required students to plot Newton’s life and Timeline 4 had children plotting their own timeline. The students are now quite digitally savvy - what with 4 months of online schooling and could comfortably use DocHub to plot the dates.  The follow up discussion was very interesting. I started off by asking them what was common to the 1st and 3rd timelines, which set them apart from 2 & 4. Shakil said they were about development. Izzy clarified that they were about the development of humans from the Big Bang. Heartening to note that children have internalised the concept that human history has its origins in the Big Bang, that it doesn’t makes sense to start studying it from the advent of writing. They all shared the titles they had given to their charts - “Key Events in Human History”, “Politics and Development”, “Life of Issac Newton” and “Life of a Human”.

I brought the discussion back to comparing and contrasting the four timelines. They postulated that two covered individual lives and others had sundry events. However, they still hadn’t come round to noticing the difference in scale. Then Ibrahim spoke up - “Two are really spread out and the others are condensed.” Finally!! I asked them if they could put all these timelines together onto a single timeline. Hana said it wouldn’t make sense. “The scales are different, the sizes are different.” Abdul Aziz thought we would need the same scale, but that would pose problems. Izzy pointed out that we could use different scales, a prelude to what they will see on the BHP Timeline with bends in the scale. I’m thrilled she already had come to the conclusion without first seeing how the BHP timeline would handle this issue. They did realise that a lot of the events, especially the human timelines would become insignificant on a full united timeline. We discussed the different kinds of timelines. While they all had used the left to right, being Arabic readers, they could relate to timelines that would go from right to left. They have also seen vertical timelines in encyclopedias at schools. Izzy then asked “Could we have a timeline as a network or web? Like a mindmap?” That sounds exciting but honestly, I’m not sure how that would work out - we are so used to viewing history in a linear fashion.

Upcoming units in the introductory section will have students learning about origin stories from different cultures, understanding how knowledge is created and imparted, how claims should be tested, and back to a unit on measurement. Further sections will dive into each of the thresholds of Big History.

An important part of the Big History course is that it helps students build the interdisciplinary skills they would require for studying history. Hence we have learned about creating vocab walls, played a scavenger hunt to explore the  website, started maintaining a personal vocabulary list. One of the most helpful tools is the 3 Close Reads - which teaches students how to read complex non fiction texts with comprehension - a skill which is cross-disciplinary and will help students in all subject areas. Another tool is a guide on facilitating class discussions - where students are encouraged to argue their point of view using evidence and also challenge each other’s thinking in a productive way.

Keep tuned for more blogs on how we are progressing through this course.

Aneesa Jamal