Monday 16 November 2020

Teaching Critical Thinking through Big History - The Big Bang

There's got to be a million reasons why I love teaching Big History to my 8th graders. But the first and foremost is that it leads to wonderful discussions in the classroom - which afford me a peek into the minds of my students and how they are developing various skills. Another facet of the course is its strucutre and how it develops vital academic skills in students - critical thinking, evaluation, argumentation based on evidence, deep reading and high quality written communication.

We recently started up the 2nd Unit on the Big Bang. The first activity required students to think up of a natural disaster and then list causes that led to it - in the short, medium and long term.  The students worked for this assignment using the Breakout Rooms feature in Zoom. As I kept popping in and out of their rooms, I witnessed interesting discussions. One of the teams had chosen the 2004 Tsunami - they listed the earthquake in Indonesia as the immediate cause but were able to go back further into continental drift to use plate shift tectonics as a core reason. They were further back into the formation of the earth's crust and mantle to explain how plates were formed and are constantly moving even today - which led to the earthquake and therefore the tsunami.

The Vocab Wall activity was an incredible way to help students and deepen enhance their understanding of word meanings. Each student was assigned 2 words which they had to research - meanings, synonyms, antonyms and context. Words ranged from "parallax", "evidence", "intuition", "astronomical" & "hydrogen".  Then they had to browse the BH unit to find their word's usage in articles or activities. Finally we had a WORD WAR - where students had to justify using evidence why their word was the most important word in the entire unit. For this, the students really had to understand the context in which the word was used. Next, they had to identify another word in the list which was connected with their word. Again, they had to justify their connection. Students readily challenged each other's arguements. Some also stepped into to support a flailing classmate - which reflected a sense of empathy and connection. 

From there we dived deeper into understanding what the Big Bang was through videos and discussions. The article on Complexity provided a context for how each Threshold emerged through Goldilocks conditions which provided increasing complexity.  

Today we worked on understanding a graphical representation of the first threshold and students had to come up with interesting hashtags to briefly summarize their understanding. Hashtags ranged from #beginnings, #allmatter, #lifebegins, #whereallenergywas released.

We watched the Big Bang video and classified learning into the S-E-C model - Support - Extend - Challenge. For this activity, use used the Zoom Whiteboard where students could collaboratively add their ideas in real time. We discussed how it was easy to identify ideas which "Supported' our thinking and also those which "Extended" our thinking, but extremely difficult to find ones which "Challenge" our thinking. I told the students that they should constantly be aware and analyze the readings for such ideas and tease them out - a good pointer on metacognition and deeper thinking.  

For next time, they have to do a "Literature Review" by finding and reading articles on the latest scientific understanding of the Big Bang and make a group presentation. They have to use their newly learned skills on Claim Testing to evaluate the authenticity of the article and website by assessing whether the author of the article is an "authority" on the subject or not.  We discussed how "authority" can be achieved - through education, experience and reputation in the field, but how also, "authority" is sometimes attributed implicitly and incorrectly based on race, gender or socio-economic condition. This led to a discussion on how women scientists and mathematicians often have a battle on their hands to garner equal respect and authority for their work as men. 

Truly, teaching Big History can give any educator a well deserved buzz, especially in these trying times of school lockdowns. 

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