A School for Big, Spiraling History (part 2 of 5)

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I wrote in my last post about what seems to be an insuperable problem with the now-dominant model of K-12 social studies: students graduate with a disjointed, near-sighted vision of how the world hangs together. A better model, I think, needs to attempt to do a few things differently.

First, it will attempt to be an "über-lens," giving students a clear way of understanding everything in the world (and certainly everything in the K-12 curriculum) through stories. That is, it will ground students in the big picture of life, the universe, and everything. It shouldn't focus exclusively on the West. It should, rather, be a curriculum for encountering the whole human story: West and East, North and South, modern and ancient, espresso-sippers and hunter-hunter-gatherers.

Second, it will attempt to overcome the tragedy of conveyor-belt knowledge: information is learned, tested, and immediately forgotten. (Quick — what years was the Civil War fought? No cheating!) A new model must attempt, rather, to layer and complicate knowledge so students can achieve a full, complex understanding.

Third, it will attempt to tap into the richness — the vividness, the epic-ness, and sometimes the craziness — of the human experience. It should connect students viscerally with the most wonderful successes, the most horrible disasters, the most brilliant acts of courage, and the most heinous betrayals around the world.

So: what should it look like? How do you do that? For the last few years, Lee and I have been working on a model called "Big Spiral History." We've actually written something like 80 pages on it, if memory serves, but I'll sketch out the general vision today and tomorrow.

Big Spiral History brings together three ideas which (not coincidentally!) address the three problems above.

To provide an über-lens, Big Spiral History starts at the actual beginning — the birth of the Universe. (We will, of course, primarily tell the story of the Big Bang, but we'll also talk about other creation stories: the Hebrew, and Ojibwe, and Hindu, and so forth. How we'll navigate the rapids of American beliefs about the age of the Universe is something we've given thought to, and may post on later.)

(Note: we're stealing, quite shamelessly, the whole idea of Big History from people like David Christian, author of Maps of Time, and Cynthia Stokes Brown, author of Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. There's an entire International Big History Association, of which I'm a member. It's pretty fantastic framework for thinking about the world. If you're unacquainted with the idea, this TED talk — "The History of the Universe in 18 Minutes" — provides an excellent introduction.)

Everything — everything! — fits inside this giant story. And starting at the birth of the Universe allows us to anchor everything the students will later learn in this narrative. Our math comes from the ancient Sumerians and Greeks — let's learn their stories, and put them on our timeline! Our periodic table comes from the Russian Mendeleev — let's put him on our timeline, too! Ditto our alphabet, music, sports, favorite stories...

Starting at the birth of the Universe allows us to engage all knowledge through story.

And then we'll progress through all of history, paying especial attention to the last few thousand (and then few dozen) years. That is, the focus will very much be on the human part of the last 13.7 billion years.

In grade 1, we'll excite students with the far-distant past: the Big Bang to Alexander the Great, up to (roughly) 300 BCE. That means dinosaurs and mammoths and cave men and Aesop and mummies and myths and legends the world over.

In grade 2, we'll excite students with the Greeks, Romans, and medieval world, up to (roughly) 1500 CE. Well, that's the traditional way of phrasing it — we'll focus, too, on the other major civilizations of the period: the empires of India and China and Africa and the Americas.

(Studying and teaching Big History myself these last few years, I've been shocked to find that during some periods the West, which I had focused on nearly exclusively in high school and college, is precisely the most boring place to be: the exciting ideas and ways of life are being developed in other parts of the world.)

In grade 3, we'll excite students with the Renaissance and modern worlds — Columbus and Luther and da Vinci all the way through the world wars. Again, this is a western way of framing things — Simon Bolivar and ninjas and Sitting Bull are at least as important as da Vinci, if not more. This will cover (roughly) 1500 to 1945.

And in grade 4, we'll excite students with the world of living memory — 1945 to the present. Here we'll get to tap into the memories of family members, and hear the often-conflicting accounts of what's going on. We'll also get to imagine what the next 100 or so years might bring: flying cars? Environmental collapse? Unprecedented prosperity?

(Thinking about the future, incidentally, is a crucial skill. When it's not explicitly taught, people will still do it — they'll just do it badly, latching onto a single vision of the future that particularly excites or terrifies them.

Our students will live in the future. We might as well help them imagine multiple ways it might come to pass — good ones as well as bad ones — so they can more sagely plan their own lives.)

How we'll overcome the tragedy of conveyor-belt knowledge, and the tendency to miss connecting with the deeply human in history, is a topic I'll cover in my next post!

Oh: why the above image? I grabbed it from a short essay David Christian did, in which he argues that people crave having a place in the wider cosmos. This Van Gogh work seems to speak to that longing.

The wonderful thing is that we do have a place in the cosmos — a quite wonderful place, I've come to believe. And we can ground students in that. What a wonderful task it is to teach children...

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA