Big history to give students big picture: Bill Gates and Christian in innovative teaching paths

Bernard Lane, in The Australian, 25 June 2011

TWO Australian schools have been chosen to trial what may be the first universal history syllabus able to be taught in any country and any language.  The project brings together academic David Christian, who pioneered a new way to teach history at Sydney’s Macquarie University, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who wants to help him revolutionise the way schoolchildren learn. Next year, students at Nossal High School in Melbourne and Narara Valley High School on the NSW central coast will join US schools by sampling “big history”, which kicks off the human story 13.7 billion years ago with the Big Bang. Students will have free access to a website rich with video, animation and all manner of resources, one of many benefits flowing from Mr Gates’s chance discovery of Professor Christian.

On his blog, Mr Gates said: “When I came across his lectures a few years ago, he really blew me away. Here’s a guy who’s read across the sciences, humanities, and social sciences and brought it together in a single framework. I often hear that kids give up on science because they were intimidated by the math, or put off by dissections in biology. David got me thinking that big history could excite kids about science and learning in general.”

Big history has to squeeze in the Big Bang, evolution and the rise of homo sapiens, so there is less room for the battles and revolutions of conventional history. “Your first encounter with humans (in big history) is a unifying encounter and the idea of humans as divided into different cultures, religious or national identities comes right at the end of the course,” Professor Christian said. “My hope is that this syllabus will be the first history syllabus ever produced that is global in the way that modern science is global. “A big history syllabus produced in the US, with very minor tweaking, ought to work in Beijing, in Moscow, in Johannesburg.” Some in the humanities had been sceptical, but Professor Christian said big history was gaining momentum and it was not just the Gates imprimatur. “Very suddenly and very recently I feel that something I’ve had a lot of fun with for a long time is being taken seriously,” Professor Christian said.

At Melbourne’s new Nossal school, where Year 9 students will trial the new course, history and philosophy teacher Angus Clark saw the logic of what Professor Christian wanted to do.”He and I agreed immediately on the idea that education is so compartmentalised,” Mr Clark said.”Kids go to maths and they do that in isolation, they go to science and they do that in isolation.

“Big history just ties everything together. And I think a lot of history had become obscure and irrelevant to modern students.” When Professor Christian visited the school last year, he pitched his history and invited questions. “Why did our species become dominant in the world while others didn’t?,” one Year 9 student wanted to know. Which is exactly the kind of big-picture question that big history sets out to provoke.

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One response to “Big history to give students big picture: Bill Gates and Christian in innovative teaching paths

  1. chandreDW

    Historians, Anthropologists, “social scientists” and human rights lawyers have to accept that the natural evolution of matter and of adaptive living species, as embodied in physical and in Darwinian evolution are the only empirically well established paradigms that we have. Very few social scientists examine their data in terms of evolutionary biology or physical evolution.

    Social scientists have shied away from using the concepts of Darwinian and physical evolution as the systematizing framework of their studies because of the 19th century misapplications to Eugenics, and naive ‘survival of the fittest” theories.

    Instead they have wooed half-baked thiestic, Karmic, nationalistic, or Hegalian, Marxist, Structuralist, or post-modern mythical epistemologies.
    This “big history” program is nothing but a welcome fist step to the pains-painstakingly acquired knowledge of how the evolution of material and organic systems took place.

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