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A social studies course that “runs on jet fuel”

Looking for ways to make your history lessons more exciting and inspire deeper learning? Big History could be an answer, the IB’s Emanuele Pesoli tells IB World magazine

Big History is “a social studies course that runs on jet fuel”, as described by the founders of the Big History Project. It’s a powerful combination of interdisciplinary learning, an inquiry-based approach and a concept-driven curriculum, all focused on exploring the history of the universe from the ‘Big Bang’ to the present.

The Big History Project was inspired by the work of historian David Christian and is supported by Bill Gates. It offers potentially interesting connections with IB programmes, which has led to a new collaboration between the Big History Project and the Middle Years Programme (MYP).

Emanuele Pesoli, IB Curriculum Manager for MYP Individuals and Societies, shares the plans with IB World magazine editor Sophie-Marie Odum, and explains how schools can get involved.

Sophie-Marie Odum (SMO): Tell me more about the Big History Project

Emanuele Pesoli (EP): It’s an online curriculum, which is used to teach history in a more interdisciplinary way. It started in 2010 and is currently taught in 1,600-1,700 schools. About 90 per cent of the schools teaching the curriculum are in the US and Australia. Generally, schools in the US have used Big History as a substitute for traditional courses in world history. We also know about quite a few international schools implementing the course, particularly in Hong Kong and Singapore.

The Big History Project provides free online learning resources that teachers find engaging and easy to use. Educators can also exchange information and resources, share their strategies for teaching specific units, and create shared assessment tasks.

In summary, the Big History Project curriculum looks at the development of the universe from the ‘Big Bang’ through the emergence of contemporary culture across eight significant thresholds or transition points of increasing complexity:

  1. Creation of the universe
  2. Convergence of matter to form stars
  3. Development of complex chemical elements
  4. Formation of planets
  5. Emergence of life
  6. Evolution of Homo sapiens
  7. Appearance of agriculture
  8. Revolutions in human society, scientific understanding and technology

SMO: How does the Big History Project align with the IB’s values?

EP: Well, there are certain characteristics, which they have in common. One is the fact that the Big History Project tends to have an interdisciplinary ‘big picture’ approach, integrating academic content from multiple areas of study (in this case, history and science) as we often do in the MYP. The second characteristic is that it is an inquiry-based course – students reflect about and investigate big ideas, taking ownership of their learning and demonstrating understanding.

The Big History Project holds an annual teacher leader summit in January, in Seattle, US, and they invite teachers who have been teaching Big History for a number of years. I took part in the last conference where plans were announced to implement the course in 3,000 schools around the world. What is interesting from an IB perspective is that currently all the material on the website is only in English, but in 2018, a lot of material will be available in Spanish and from 2020 in Mandarin. The Big History Project is moving towards becoming more international.

SMO: The Big History Project website says it is very much a teacher-centred approach. How does that fit with the IB’s philosophy of student-led and inquiry-based learning?

EP: It fits very well, particularly with the MYP, because there are many activities, which are based on investigation, so it is far less content-based and is more about inquiry and asking students to investigate specific topics, either individually or in groups. This is what basically the MYP is about. Like the Personal Project and the IB Diploma Programme’s (DP) Extended Essay, this approach is ready-made for developing critical thinking and research skills.

I think the Big History Project is actually more student-led as it provides a lot of avenues for students to make choices and build understanding. It is basically a summary of the history of humanity, which makes it particularly powerful. It relates very well to MYP global contexts and the programme’s emphasis on students’ experience of life beyond the classroom.

A better description might be teacher-facilitated learning. The Big History Project is very concerned with making teachers’ lives easier and providing the support teachers need to help their students succeed. The program leaves lots of room for student choice, student agency and student-driven inquiry.

SMO: How does it fit with the MYP curriculum framework? Is it part of the Individuals and Societies subject group, or is it more like a stand-alone course that might exist alongside (but not as a part of) IB programmes?

EP: Well, that is quite interesting. One of the reasons behind engaging with the Big History Project is really to explore how teachers and schools can implement it in their unique local contexts. Some schools have taught Big History as an Individuals and Societies course; others use it as a series of formal interdisciplinary units or an integrated course. Schools also used it as kind of preparatory course for DP Theory of Knowledge (TOK) because it raises important knowledge questions and ways of knowing, and encourages integrative thinking. Others use it as an extra science class.

What we are interested in, from the perspective of programme design, is to explore how schools use Big History, including the age or year level in which they decide to implement it.

In September 2017 we will begin a small pilot study, anticipating that we can hopefully expand the number of schools in 2018. We are launching with a number of schools in the US in September 2017 before the big roll out in 2018. We selected around 12 schools that will organize online teacher training and begin using Big History in the context of the MYP. The schools are clustered in New York and California mainly, which makes it easier to collaborate in person and visit schools for research and face-to-face support.

We then plan to have a conference to gather evidence from these small-scale innovations, looking to understand how the schools have implemented Big History and what impacts the programme has had on teachers, students and school communities.

This approach is intentionally exploratory. We see commonalities, obviously in terms of pedagogy and philosophy of education used, and it has been a very fruitful relationship between the IB and leaders of the Big History Project.  We are very pleased to have IB World Schools leading the way as innovators and risk takers.

SMO: How will The Big History Project work with MYP eAssessments?

EP: We’re not sure yet, because it’s still early days for the new MYP assessment models, and most schools don’t administer MYP on-screen examinations or submit ePortfolios for moderation. We have a broad approach for this type of project. One way is to really explore which ways the schools are going to use the course, another is more practical, in that we really need input from schools for TSM.

We also need a little more long-term rationale. So while we investigate the connections between Big History and the MYP, we will explore possible avenues for teacher professional development and perhaps eventually IB-validated assessment.

SMO: Is there scope for the Big History Project to be used in other programmes like the DP?

EP: Yes. Big History has some important potential connections with the DP Nature of Science course, which is currently a pilot course. It might conceivably even become a mainstream subject at some point, although there’s a long conversation before that can happen.

SMO: Why should IB World Schools get involved with the Big History Project? 

EP: The IB community values innovation, and some schools are really interested in experimenting with new approaches to pedagogy. This might be a tool to do that. To be innovative and to be authentic is where current collaborative pedagogy is heading – with more collaboration and a more interdisciplinary approach to projects. That fits very well with both the MYP and the Big History Project. I think it is something that really appeals to some schools.

It enables teachers to enrich what can be highly-prescribed and constricted content in national or state systems. It also provides important opportunities for students to develop approaches to learning skills, especially in research.

SMO: How can IB World Schools get involved? 

EP: We are running an exploratory project now, and we want to attract as many IB World Schools as possible. We are still at the stage of developing ideas, so we definitely welcome all schools that are interested in finding out more.

In mid-2018 we are planning a conference or special working group to find out what schools have done and how they did it. We will evaluate how they embedded Big History into the MYP. At that stage, we will also have more data about what works, as well as a better idea of how we can support schools in developing innovative strategies for learning about ideas that cross disciplinary boundaries.

If you would like more information on The Big History Project, or to get involved: contact