Analysis: will Big History change the way history is taught in schools?

Louise Ashwell - Deputy News Editor 12 November 2012

There have never been fewer students studying History in schools. Less than a third of students in state schools take the subject to GCSE in state schools, and only half in the private sector.

Historians and politicians alike have been falling over themselves with suggestions for how to reignite the passion of the nation’s youth for all things historical. The latest offering from an Australian academic, however, proposes the most drastic vision of change yet.

His new approach is termed Big History. While Education Secretary Michael Gove endorses a new GCSE curriculum which returns to the teaching of predominantly British history, with an emphasis on learning key facts and dates, Big History could not be more different. Masterminded by Australian academic and professor at San Diego State University David Christian, its premise is that we can no longer study history from a nationalist perspective. Instead, it aspires to teach history on the largest possible geographical and chronological scale.

Instead of students rote learning individual gobbets of information on specific topics, Christian argues that we can only understand history by looking at underlying global chains of cause and effect. It is an approach that serves both as world history, spanning countries and continents, and as a history of the world. Hence, it draws upon geology, science and technology to show how human life came to survive on Earth. A typical lesson at the start of a Big History course may initially resemble a physics class, as students are taught that 4.6 billion years ago an exploding star created a crust on the Earth’s surface containing 5% iron. That is, until they learn that it was from these iron deposits that humans were able to create weapons and subsequently kill their prey.

Indeed, Big History aims so high, some critics argue, as to ignore the impact of humankind. Students would not hear their first mention of the species Homo sapiens until more than halfway through a Big History-inspired course. Christian’s defence of this decision is that whilst “human beings mark a threshold in the development of the planet… it is only part of the picture. What Big History can do is show us the nature of our complexity and fragility and the dangers that face us, but it can also show us our power, with collective learning.”

Christian’s theory has won support from people in high places, with Microsoft founder Bill Gates funding the education project’s launch in America last year. Commenting on the project, Gates has said that “I really like how the course challenges students to wrestle with big questions – questions like how different timescales affect our perspective on history, how language transformed humanity, and what it means to be human.” The course is unique for offering a syllabus that can be studied by students across the world, by virtue of the fact that it does not have any specific nationalistic focus, and so schools from Canada to Scotland have picked up the syllabus. If Gove’s reforms leave English students feeling unfulfilled, they need not worry; from August next year Big History teaching materials will be available for students to access for free online.

Louise Ashwell – Deputy News Editor