A School for Big, Spiraling History (part 4 of 5)


In my last post, I limned out ("limned" is a delightful word that means "hastily sketched," originally from the word "illuminated") the big picture of our K-12 social studies curriculum: a Big History scope and sequence in which first graders engage ancient history, second graders medieval history, third graders modern history, and fourth graders recent history (and the future). After this grand tour of all human (and universal) history, fifth graders then start back at the beginning, and take another four-year trip. And then, after two such tours, our high school freshmen will journey out a third and final time.

But I was remiss: I didn't mention the actual things they might be studying. I'll jump into that tomorrow.

To lay the foundation — and clear up some possible misunderstandings — it might be helpful to lay out the specific scope of each year. To toss around phrases like "medieval history" only gets us so far: let's see some numbers!

Here's a chart I made when I presented this curriculum at the International Big History Association's conference:

("BYA" means "billion years ago." "BCE" and "CE" mean "before the Common Era" and "Common Era," respectively — both were devised by Jewish academics who didn't want to apostatize their religion by using Christian religious terminology: AD means Anno Domini, "in the year of our Lord.")

So, to be clear, according to this plan:

students in grades 1, 5, and 9 would be studying the Big Bang to 300 BCE; students in grades 2, 6, and 10 would be studying 300 BCE to 1500 CE; students in grades 3, 7, and 11 would be studying 1500 to 1945; and students in grades 4, 8, and 12 would be studying 1945 to the present — and imagining what the future might bring.

But enough of dates! What might they actually be learning about?

We on this school-launch team, happily, are smart enough to recognize that it would be folly to try to precisely answer this right now. The precise curriculum will emerge as a duet between us and our students — and the books we read.

(The schools we need are not ones that stamp out the precise curriculum years in advance.) (Of course, they're also not ones that simply make it all up as they go along.)

We'll follow a general rule: our students will learn only about the most important, and most wonderful, things in the world. We can't afford to waste our students' time.

As it turns out, finding content that follows our rule won't be a problem. History abounds — it overflows, it hemorrhages — with exciting, captivating material: catastrophes and liberations, villains and heroes. As Susan Wise Bauer writes in one of her wonderful history books for children,

"the hardest part of writing a world history is deciding what to leave out."

Imagine: of all the things that have happened to humanity, we can ignore all but the most important 1 percent — the sliver that has had the most impact on everything else. And then, from that sliver, we can focus on the most interesting 1 percent. We get to skim the best of the best!

And following this "big spiral" model allows us some great opportunities. There's a Calvin and Hobbes that's instructive here:

The dominant social studies scope and sequence, in an attempt to be "relevant," shuts out so much of what students actually want to learn about. We can give students more of what they want!

Enough hemming and hawing. Onto the substance — or at least one hasty sketch of it!

(The image at the top, in case you're wondering, is from the Big History Project — a wonderful bringing-in of Big History to the high school curriculum. We have much to learn from them.)

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA