A Taste of Big Spiral History: Grade School

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Enough theorizing: let's explore what we could actually do with "Big Spiral History"!


Big Spiral History in Grade School

Our first graders might start puzzling over the idea of a beginning. They'd hear (and maybe illustrate, re-tell, and act out!) a number of creation myths: that of the Ojibwe, the Sumerians, the Koreans, and so on.

We'd follow that up with our scientific origin myth, the Big Bang, and then progress onto a miscellany of wonderful, kid-friendly stuff from the past: fierce-looking armored fish, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, cave paintings, mummies, Aesop's fables, Arabian and Indian myths, and Alexander the Great.

(I'm embarrassed, once again, at how compact I'm making this. There are whole worlds to explore in the pre-300 BCE slice o' pie — more than enough for a wonder-filled first grade experience. If you're noticing gaping holes — why isn't he mentioning THIS! — please forgive me.)

Second graders, picking up the story at around 300 BCE, might continue with the tales of China and Rome, Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights, knights and castles, Marco Polo, and Norse myths. There is enough of delight in these 1,800 years for us to craft a vibrantly intellectual curriculum.

Third graders, continuing at around 1500 CE, could listen to and re-tell the stories of ninjas (ninjas!), the Indian invention of the number ‘0,’ Montezuma and Cortes, Marie Antoinette, the abolitionist movement, and World Wars 1 and 2.

Fourth graders, continuing at 1945 CE, could hear and reflect on the stories of Mohandas Gandhi, Rachel Carson, and Nelson Mandela. They could relive the first scaling of Everest, the exploration of the Marianas Trench, and the Moon landing.

Fourth-graders might also go on to imagine what the future will bring. Even if they don't get particularly thoughtful at this stage — if they, say, imagine nothing more realistic than robot butlers and flying cars! —  I think that this might still be a useful experience. Just broaching the question is important. What will life be like when they’re older? What will life be like for their children and grandchildren? A Big Spiral History curriculum puts these on students' radar.

In general, then, in this introductory cycle we should teach only history’s “greatest hits” — the brightest bits of human (and cosmic) experience. Our goal is to create the historical anchors we'll return to later, and most importantly, to get the students wanting more wanting to return to these topics to expand their understanding.


But how can we teach the past to grade schoolers?

As we've mentioned before, the now-dominant model of social studies has snipped genuine history out of the early grades. It's done this because of a pernicious idea suggested in the mid-20th century: that young children simply were not able to conceive of the long-ago and far-away.

That this is not only false but ridiculous has been demonstrated repeatedly by scholars of education. It's also demonstrated every time a child picks up a book about dinosaurs or gleefully describes how Egyptians removed the Pharaoh's brain through his nose (ick!). It's a dead idea. 

But it seems good to describe how we can help students learn about the world of long-ago and far away — particularly since the answer to this question is "the Cognitive Tools of Imaginative Education!" These will play a large role in every part of our school — and, bizarrely, I haven't written about yet.

The basic idea of these tools, once again, is that the basic problem of education is getting students to connect their full minds — their thinking, their feeling, their perceiving — to something in the environment (a math problem, say, or the Declaration of the Rights of Man).

And the genius move of Imaginative Education is that this is precisely the same problem as every culture has had to solve in order to pass itself along to the next generation. The basic problem of education has already been solved. It's been solved by every successful culture over the last ten thousand years (or more).

And it's been solved by employing specific cultural–cognitive tools. Certain of these tools are perfectly suited for our youngest children. Kieran Egan calls these tools, taken together, the "Mythic Toolkit." Among them are stories, abstract binary opposites, metaphors, rhymes, jokes, puzzles, and mysteries. Let's take these one at a time.

We can teach through stories.  Stories enchant; stories captivate. We can tell real stories, of course, using information that we have access to: the tale of Tutankhamen, the tale of the Roman Empress Theodora.

We can also tell hypothetical stories about events we lack direct information about: How was the cat domesticated? How was the alphabet invented?

We can also tell silly make-believe stories that allow us to get into the daily life of the past: we can invent a team of time-traveling grade schoolers who zip back and forth through the ages on wonderful adventures. How did the explorers who first crossed the Bering Strait survive? What was life like in the time of the Buddha?

We can also teach through (get ready for a wordy phrase) abstract binary opposites. Psychologists have long noted that young children bring order to their world by dividing their experiences into opposites: hot and cold, big and little, crooked and straight. This simplifies — it makes manageable what is otherwise impossibly complex.

Ironically, if we're on the lookout for abstract binary opposites to simplify reality, we can structure our lessons to be far more complex than any textbook-driven lesson can be. Kieran Egan writes that even a single opposition like "freedom/oppression" opens up a wealth of real historical material:

"Whether at home, in their neighborhood, in the classroom, or in the school yard, children already deal with matters of freedom and oppression. To use and elaborate those concepts while learning that their world has gone through great struggles and problems analogous to their own makes simple educational sense….

[Using this, students can learn about] Greeks and the Persian Empire, or West Africans and the slave trade, or the ancient dynasties of China, or the struggles, triumphs, and disasters of men and women and communities down the ages." (The Educated Mind, p. 42-3)

We can teach through metaphors. How can students understand how long it's been since the dinosaurs died? Well, by stretching out their arms: if the Big Bang started on the tippy-tip of their left middle finger, and if time ticks on as they move to the right, then the dinosaurs died out only one third of an inch from their right-most tip.

Whoa. The world is freakin' old. 

Metaphors can do that.

We can teach through rhymes. 

The Spanish Armada met its fate In fifteen hundred eighty eight.

Or the macabre —

In sixteen hundred sixty six London burnt like rotten sticks.

Or the provocative —

In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

In fourteen hundred ninety three, Columbus stole all he could see. 

Rhymes hijack the brain: they stick with you. We can make good use of them.

We can teach through jokes. Granted: to our adult ears, many kid jokes sound truly terrible, provoking groans, if not outright pain. (Q: Why were the Dark Ages so dark? A: Because there were so many knights!) But kids often find them zany and thrilling.

We can teach through puzzles. How many parts of a buffalo could you use? How could the Inuit survive in Greenland, while the "technologically advanced" Vikings could not? How did the Egyptians build the pyramid? Similarly, we can teach through mysteries. Mysteries are puzzles whose answer is still unknown. We don't need to be obsessed with steam-rolling the world with our own understandings: we can teach an appreciation of mystery.

Egan writes:

"Too often we represent the world to students as known, and we represent their task as to accumulate the knowledge that we already have.

This is, of course, a part of education, but when we forget that our small circle of secure knowledge is bounded by a vast ocean of mystery, we make the educational task rather dull.

When we make it clear that we are engaged in a journey of discovery, surrounded by mystery, we better represent what the educational task is really like, and open up possibilities and wonder." (Learning in Depth, p. 132)

History abounds in mystery. And we can use mystery to make kids hungry for the next Big Spiral History cycle to come.


In Sum:

As a systematic treatment of the world, this first cycle certainly leaves much to be desired — but full coverage isn't what we're trying for.

The goal in these beginning grades isn’t, again, to “cover” everything, but rather to “uncover” some of the most exciting parts of the story. Our hope is to instill in students’ minds an appreciation of the epic arc of cosmic and human history and a sense of the profusion of vibrant stories that are stuffed inside them. If students in the early grades miss or forget even some large parts of the story — Sumer, perhaps, or the advent of multicellular life — all will still be well.

Kieran Egan's Mythic toolkit affords us rich historical learning filled with emotions and meaning in even the earliest grades. Filled with a developing interest in history, our students, entering fifth grade, would now begin the tale anew.

Next: Big Spiral History in Middle School

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA