Big Inspiration

How does one gain perspective on our life and times? What if you could look at the full scope of the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang? We’re intrigued by a new humanities curriculum that does just that, called the Big History Project (BHP). Inspired by historian David Christian and funded by Bill Gates, BHP solves the problem of where to begin studying history by simply starting at the Big Bang. Thus, it is a history integrated with science from the outset and seeks to inspire a coherent understanding of “the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity.” To create a framework for such an ambitious scope, BHP organizes its investigation around eight “thresholds of increasing complexity,” those moments in the history of the universe (and later, humanity) when conditions proved just right to transition from one reality to another, with no chance of going back.

The Big History Project has many potential connections with our curriculum and its emphasis on thinking flexibly and critically. First, BHP’s interdisciplinary nature matches our desire to break out of the curricular silos of traditional education and train students to assess phenomena from different disciplinary perspectives. Second, its focus on the vastly big and the infinitesimally small encourages students to think across scale and develop a sense of both magnitude and wonder. Third, its stress on metacognition demands students analyze their own intellectual claims, whether based on intuition, authority, logic, or empirical evidence. In addition, we like BHP’s collaboration with Newsela, a current-events web platform that offers relevant articles at five different reading levels, allowing students to calibrate to their ideal level of comprehension and track their progress reading nonfiction over time.

While the Big History Project is designed for ninth graders to complete over one school year, we’re considering using it as a framework for all three years of middle school humanities. With the questions of the adolescent years swirling around them, this epic historical perspective could offer students not only the skills to make sense of their lives, but also a sense of perspective on the questions that seem so important on any given day.