BIG HISTORY

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

William Blake

Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity is an extraordinarily important course developed by Professor David Christian which is now available, with many free resources, for schools and teachers to use in their classrooms. Big History is effectively a scientific creation myth that makes sense in the context of our contemporary lives. It is a story truly worth remembering and telling to our children. Here’s David Christian’s opening explanation of the ‘scale’ of the course:

“Big history surveys the past at all possible scales, from conventional history, to the much larger scales of biology and geology, to the universal scales of cosmology. It weaves a single story, stretching from the origins of the Universe to the present day and beyond, using accounts of the past developed within scholarly disciplines that are usually studied quite separately. Human history is seen as part of the history of our Earth and biosphere, and the Earth’s history, in turn, is seen as part of the history of the Universe. In this way, the different disciplines that make up this large story can be used to illuminate each other. The unified account of the past assembled in this way can help us understand our own place within the Universe. Like traditional creation stories, big history provides a map of our place in space and time; but it does so using the insights and knowledge of modern science.”

How big is Big?

The second lecture, “Moving across Multiple Scales” really assists to conceptualise the awesome scope of time and space that the course covers. There are a series of important attempts to make us understand what is, fundamentally, scales beyond imagination. It is quite brilliant, especially for those who have a humanities background and are not as up to date with science, maths and astronomy as one would wish to be. For example, when you realise that the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, about 4.3 light years or 25 trillion (25,000,000,000,000) miles away, would take 5 million years to journey too it helps one begin to conceptualise the vastness of distances humans need to travel to explore just our corner (not the right word) of the universe.

Here’s a brief, 18-minute, TED talk that doesn’t really capture the course well but is a good taster and certainly helps with scale:

Where to now?

It is now possible for interested teachers and institutions to become part of the Big History Project. You can register to access the materials needed to teach the course here. This is the educator’s web guide if you need further assistance to get started.

The inaugural Big History conference takes place in December. This will be an exciting event over two days in early December at Macquarie University. Topics and sessions include:

  • The Big History Project
  • The Big History, Technology and Online Learning
  • Big History Curriculum and Classrooms
  • Big History Institute and Educational Research Agendas
  • Big History, Literacies and Mixed Ability Learners
  • Interdisciplinary Curriculum Models and Implementation
  • Big History and the Australian Curriculum
  • Developing learning outcomes and assessment models for Big History

Closing thoughts

Although interested in this concept of ‘Big History’ for several years I have only just completed (via Audible) the 25 hour series of 48 lectures recorded in 2008 and will now evangelise, as Bill Gates did after he listened to Professor Christian’s course, about the importance of this approach to teaching history.

The concept for the course is excellent but what truly interests is the eclectic, inter-disciplinary approach taken by Christian which itself should be a model for the systems who continue to develop terribly balkanised curriculum design that exists in most countries and educational institutions.

You can make a start today on the lectures, if you have an Audible account or here is a link to The Teaching Company DVD. Don’t delay, as I did, this is the most stimulating and important of courses.  I recommend you follow @BigHistoryPro and @DavidChristian on twitter. Here is the Facebook page and Lateline covered the course too.

What are your experiences teaching Big History?


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Steve Jurvetson

Featured image: cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by David DeHetre: http://flickr.com/photos/davedehetre/4954464378/

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