Monday 3 August 2020

Teaching Big History I - Starting at the Big Bang!

Guess what kind of discussion happens in a History class? Battles? Kings? Conquests? Isn’t that how we learned history? With a sprinkling of art, culture, literature and technology thrown in for good measure for each civilization or empire we studied? What about Maths? Does that have any place in a History class? Apart from dates? Chemistry? Astronomy? Language? Science? Hmm!! I wouldn’t have thought so until I started teaching Big History, a fantastic online course which approaches history from a completely different angle to my 8th graders. Big History starts the study of human history from the Big Bang. It classifies the entire period from 13.8 billion years ago till present into 8 key thresholds starting from the Big Bang, Creation of Stars & Elements, the Solar System, arrival of life, humans, beginning of agriculture, collective learning and the modern times. The course is multidisciplinary and students get a sense of the interrelationships between subjects they routinely study in different silos. Hence Big History fits Al Qamar’s goal of changing student mindsets into viewing learning as an interconnected network or web. The course started off with students watching a section from a BBC video on the Mystery of the Headless Romans. The fascinating clip introduced the children to how archeology relies on various fields of study. Radio carbon dating to understanding of cultural norms, historical timelines, human physiology were all used to solve the mystery of a large number of human skeleton remains found in a mass grave in York, England. Next we were introduced to the mystery on Easter Island. When explorers landed on the island in 1722, they found humongous statues and almost no people. Students had to read an article, critically examine population & resource graphs and study images to come up with some explanation about what might have happened to the people of Easter Island. The class discussion was lively as this was another puzzle to unravel. How did these people eat? What did they eat? What might have been the culture? What was the evidence for technological development? What caused this group to die out? The lesson brought home the point that history requires a critical thinking and questioning mindset which has to look for evidence to explain mysteries. The Big Bang was introduced as the starting point of all history in an exciting fast paced video which covered how elements and stars were created, what is Cosmic Background Radiation and how it helped scientists develop the theory of the Big Bang. Another fascinating video introduced students to all the “Goldilocks” conditions were were vital for the existence of life on Earth - the Earth’s distance from the sun, the moon which stabilizes Earth’s orbit, how Jupiter and Saturn’s gravitational pull protects Earth from constant meteor bombardment, the role of Earth’s core in creating a magnetic field - all concepts that rarely figure in a History course. As a culminating activity in the first unit, students had to write an in class essay outlining their opinions on what makes people change their worldviews. They had to use the examples from how Galileo and Copernicus advocated the heliocentric view of the earth against much opposition. A fascinating discussion followed on how curiosity and desire for change are stonewalled by society and cultural norms. Students offered examples from Islamic history - how the Prophet SAW was ostracised before his mission was accepted, how women in the West struggled for their rights to vote, how abolition of slavery met stiff resistence, the struggle of women to establish their financial independence, the Indian freedom movement. I was impressed at the remarkable knowledge and clarity of thinking these young 12 year olds have developed.

Aneesa Jamal

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