When I heard that the second Keynote Presentation at the 2011 Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum in Washington was going to be on History, as a geography teacher (due to our on-going rivalry!) I considered an extra hour in bed.
However, partly by coincidence (but mainly due to jet lag!) I had been up for hours so joined the 700+ other delegates for Dr David Christian’s presentation - I was so glad that I did.
David was talking about ‘Big History’ and a project that he is involved in with the Gates Foundation to create a free, on-line, global big history course for secondary school (high school) students. I was quite captivated by his presentation and the examples that he gave.
I could explain the background to Big History but this YouTube Video that David has had made explains it a lot better than I could and in a really fun way.
What I like about David’s ideas the most is that in his own learning journey he has started to challenge what knowledge is important to teach. Like many teachers he started out teaching ‘depth’ but realised in the end that ‘breadth’ was just as important. Big History also challenges subject silos. In encourages people to take a more integrated look at science and humanities and realise that both have common ground and many parts of both curriculums are not very far apart.
I liked David’s examples of why it is important to stand back and look at things differently. Maybe without realising it his ‘Big History’ example is actually a good metaphor for what we need to be doing to reimagine teaching, learning and schools. It is certainly a great metaphor to encourage people to think differently.
He gave an example of astronauts on the Spaceship Discovery looking at the Earth and how the view of the big picture changed their language from talking about ‘my home’ and ‘my country’ to ‘our home’ and ‘our world’.
In another example he used the town of Chamonix in the French Alps and although he didn’t mention the mico-brewery (MBC) he did demonstrate the importance of looking at things from different perspectives and from different angles. He used two photographs of the Chamonix valley to illustrate this - again there is an obvious analogy here with education. We must always encourage people to look at things differently as educators where possible we should try to look at things through the eyes of a child (and if we can’t do this we need to ask).
Another example was around complexity. He illustrated beautifully that complexity exists on a number of different scales. He used two similar looking pictures to illustrate this. One turned out to be the brain tissue of a cat, while the other was a super computer simulation of a cluster of galaxies.
In the final example that I’ll mention here David illustrated actually how unimportant we are in the grand scheme of things. The picture of the Earth (its in the “what’s this” box) from Saturn shows just how small we are in comparison to the rest of the solar system, galaxy and universe.
The ‘Big History’ Course timeline, where the formation of the universe is broken down into 13 years illustrates nicely how humans have only been around for 53 minutes and in space for 1 second. It really is all quite mind blowing!
Of course David talked a lot about history, evolution and key events as well!
But he can do a lot better job than me of explain this and I would recommend that you watch his 2011 TED Talk on Big History - the graphics are as amazing as David’s excellent story telling skills.
I was lucky enough to get a drink with David in the bar during one of the nights of the conference and he really is a fascinating man. The Big History Project is definitely one to follow with interest and I hope that we can bring it to the UK sooner rather than later. For more information see www.bighistoryproject.com