Teaching and Learning History

Bill Gates and Big History

  • 1.  Bill Gates and Big History

    Posted 09-06-2014 07:51:00 PM

    In tomorrow's New York Times Magazine, there is an article on Bill Gates' love of Big History.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/magazine/so-bill-gates-has-this-idea-for-a-history-class.html?_r=0

    It is an interesting read, but I think that Sam Wineburg  offers the best comments about why Big History will not replace World History:

     

    "Not all educators are so enthusiastic. Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, told me that although he sees Big History as "an important intellectual movement," he did not consider the class to be a suitable replacement for an actual history course. "At certain points, it becomes less history and more of a kind of evolutionary biology or quantum physics. It loses the compelling aspect that is at the heart of the word 'history.' "

    Wineburg's deepest concern about the approach was its failure to impart a methodology to students. "What is most pressing for American high-school students right now, in the history-social-studies curriculum, is: How do we read a text? How do we connect our ability to sharpen our intellectual capabilities when we're evaluating sources and trying to understand human motivation?" he asked. "When we think about history, what are the primary sources of Big History? The original scientific reports of the Big Bang?" Wineburg, who also has developed an electronic history curriculum, scoffed."



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    Elaine Carey
    St. John's Univ., NY
    Queens NY
    careye@stjohns.edu
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  • 2.  RE: Bill Gates and Big History

    Posted 09-08-2014 09:26:00 PM
    I have taught World History for 15 years to 9th and 10th graders, and am currently co-teaching a Big History course for the first time as a senior elective with a Physicist colleague.  I don't see the course as a replacement for World History, but rather I see it as an interdisciplinary course.  As such it has pulled science kids into a history course and history kids into a science course.  What better capstone for a high school student than a course which emphasizes that all knowledge is related at a fundamental level?  Or what better intro class for a 9th grader?  
    If one looks at the extensive online curriculum, one can see a great deal of work by Bob Bain (Univ. of Mich) and his colleagues on crafting a curriculum based on Bain and Wineburg's ideas of how students learn history.  (https://www.bighistoryproject.com/home) 

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    Ane Lintvedt
    McDonogh Sch.
    Baltimore MD
    alintvedt@mcdonogh.org
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  • 3.  RE: Bill Gates and Big History

    Posted 09-09-2014 11:03:00 AM

    The best response to the Times article came from my partner who is a computer scientist. She commented that this is a course that should be required of all incoming science students as it contextualizes science, thereby showing students how it relates to the rest of human existence.  It is no surprise then that the high school teacher interviewed in the article is a science, not history, teacher (disclosure: he is an acquaintance of mine).

    Engaging students, proving to them that science is a social process, has been a huge problem for scientists.  If historians can play a role in helping increase and retain larger numbers of science students in the United States, then by all means let's team up with scientists to teach a version of this in interdisciplinary courses. 

    That said, I'd venture to argue that historians who are effective teachers, especially of introductory courses, are already engaged in teaching a kind of "Big History".  To reach and hold a broad spectrum of students in intro courses one often ranges across time, place and discipline.


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    Susan Yohn
    Hofstra Univ.
    Brooklyn NY
    susan.yohn@hofstra.edu
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  • 4.  RE: Bill Gates and Big History

    Posted 09-15-2014 10:43:00 AM

    I think Gates has one interpretation while Bain and Wineburg have different views. I do see the benefits of Big History because of the collaborations that it allows between science and history teachers/professors.  These conversations are exciting, and Microsoft Research has been very interested in working with historians and history teachers as well as scientists.

     As Susan mentioned, Big History makes science (and I would add some social sciences such as Anthropology) more relevant to other forms of inquiry by considering change over time on a far grander scale. What I find really interesting is that Big History offers an opportunity to teach change over time but also contingency which is always the most difficult in an introductory/undergraduate class.  It would be great to see is three-sequence history requirement: Big History, World History I and II in general education requirements.


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    Elaine Carey
    St. John's Univ., NY
    Queens NY
    careye@stjohns.edu
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