Why you should care

David Christian boldly links up some of the biggest ideas in astronomy, biology, geography and more to get students everywhere excited about learning.

It may have taken almost 14 billion years, but the universe at last appears ready to offer us a retrospective. From the big bang and the birth of young stars to the first single-cell creatures arising out of the primordial ooze, the cosmos had enjoyed quite a full existence before it finally sat down to tell its story to, and through, an Australian historian named David Christian.

And now Christian, with a big assist from Bill Gates, is set to take that cosmic biography to a global audience of high school students and lifelong learners as part of a free online course known as the Big History Project. But to answer the really Big Questions like “What is the meaning of Big History?” and “What was there before Big History?” you have to turn back the clock and start at the beginning. Not 14 billion years in this case, but 24 years — to Sydney’s Macquarie University in 1989.

If you want to know about humanity, you have to ask about the whole universe.

 

That year, Christian — a Russian history professor whose academic scholarship had focused on less cosmic matters like the role of vodka in the Russian peasant’s diet — began teaching a college course he called simply Big History. Designed as the ultimate survey course, the class exposed Christian’s students to the history of, well, everything. From the universe’s origins to the present, the course offered an interdisciplinary overview of key concepts in astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, geography and other subjects with the aim of showing the unexpected links between them and the implications for our own species. As Christian says in the course’s introductory video, “If you want to know about humanity, you have to ask about the whole universe.”

Bill Gates calls the 13.7-billion-year survey his “favorite course of all time.Like Christian’s 2011 TED Talk, “The history of our world in 18 minutes,” the Big History course is fundamentally about how the universe manages to grow more complex despite the stern dictates of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. As Christian puts it in his hybrid Aussie-British accent, “The universe can create complexity, but with great difficulty.” And to do so, the universe requires what fellow historian Fred Spier called the “Goldilocks conditions”: when everything is “just right,” not too hot or too cold for water to form, for life to develop, and so on. Once the Goldilocks conditions are present, complexity can move in leaps and bounds, enjoying what Christian labels “threshold moments” — key junctures at which something utterly new is created, whether it be atoms or stars or DNA.

Several years ago, Christian’s Big History course encountered its own Goldilocks conditions when it not only attracted a new student into its orbit but gained a First Team All-Universe force multiplier in the form of Bill Gates. The billionaire philanthropist, who first encountered a recorded version of Big History several years ago, teams up with Christian in a short video describing the project and calls the 13.7-billion-year survey his “favorite course of all time.” Which is why he’s partnering with Christian to take the Big History Project (BHP) to high schools and lifelong learners across the world.

Rather than rush the delivery of the ambitious course, Christian and Gates steered the program through extensive reviews and revisions, starting with eight pilot schools in 2011 and expanding to about 9,500 students in 137 schools in eight countries today. They have also brought in outside educational experts like Bob Bain, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, to reshape Christian’s college curriculum to suit both secondary students and adult learners, and to develop the related assessments, toolkits and other course materials.

The free online and in-class course officially goes on offer to the entire world today, November 1, via the BHP website.

Male school teacher pointing to board with students surrounding him.

Nossal High School, in Australia, teacher Angus Clark is test teaching a new course, big history.

The BHP offers high school teachers 10 off-the-shelf lessons in the form of pre-loaded flash drives with video content, teaching guides, lesson plans and online collaboration tools. Structured around eight “threshold moments,” the lectures on various disciplines are given not only by Christian but by academic experts from a variety of fields — from a lesson on the big bang from Barnard astrophysicist Janna Levin to a genetics lecture from Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Professor Bain, who has not only conducted research on how students understand the past but who also taught high school for 26 years, describes the project’s sweeping scope: “Our students in the Big History course are reaching across the globe to be taught by, and have their questions answered by, some of the leading minds in the world.” To expand that reach even further, a companion 10-hour television series called Big History, will debut on the History Channel (H2) November 2, narrated by the man who plays television’s most prominent ex-high school teacher, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston.

Students in Big History reach across the globe to be taught by, and have their questions answered by, some of the leading minds in the world.

Sharing the “big picture” with students will not only give them a better framework for understanding a range of disciplines across the sciences, history and economics, but it will also help them improve critical thinking skills. While many history teachers have already started to embrace online learning and the tools of the digital age to help their students become active analyzers of history and not just passive fact recorders, the BHP will expand that opportunity to exponentially more teachers and students.

Widespread dissemination of Big History is actually key to Christian’s philosophy. He believes deeply that human beings themselves represent a threshold moment in the story of the universe. Why? Because the power of human brains, especially the use of language, means that knowledge can outlast individual lifespans, permitting what Christian calls “collective learning.” And if a deeper understanding of the important relationship between humans and their environment can form in a critical mass of the brains belonging to the one species that could bring that relationship to an end, then perhaps something utterly new will come into being, and the BHP can be a journey into the future as much as one into the past.

But will students and teachers see the BHP as a challenge or an opportunity? Will they embrace this modern, science-based origins story? Or will it prove too big to fit into the often narrow confines of modern minds, institutions and curricula?

As with the universe itself, the questions about Big History outnumber the answers. But one thing’s certain: Christian will be taking the long view.

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