Big History Small World coverCynthia Stokes Brown discusses how she teaches big history in this episode of Berkshire Bookworld. As she discussed last week, in “An Introduction to Big History,” big history incorporates many disciplines, from cosmology and chemistry to archaeology and history. Join us today to find out how to bring all these aspects of big history into your classroom. Cynthia has decades of experience teaching history and training teachers, and Berkshire is proud to publish her new book, Big History, Small World: From the Big Bang to You.

Length: 19 minutes.

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Cynthia Stokes BrownCynthia Stokes Brown has taught world history in high-school and trained high-school teachers at Dominican University of California, where she piloted big history courses and helped initiate the big history program now required for all freshmen. She is the author of the general-interest book on big history, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (New York: New Press, 2nd ed. 2012) and also wrote a university-level textbook with David Christian and Craig Benjamin, Big History: Between Nothing and Everything (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014). She is a founding member of the International Big History Association and associate editor of its publication, Origins.

Karen ChristensenKaren Christensen is the chief executive officer and founder of Berkshire Publishing Group and a writer specializing in sustainability and community with a focus on China. One of her recent projects was coediting Women and Leadership: History, Concepts, and Case Studies (A Berkshire Essential) with George R. Goethals and Crystal L. Hoyt of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond.

Transcript: Teaching Big History

This text has been lightly edited for clarity and ease of use.

Host:                  Karen Christensen
Interviewee:    Cynthia Stokes Brown

KAREN: Cynthia, thanks for taking time to talk a bit more about Big History. A particular aspect that I’m really curious about is how you teach this topic. This is history on a bigger scale. What I hear from you is that when you’ve done this, when you started doing this, students were excited by it. So, please tell me about that.

CYNTHIA: Okay. I’ll try but, you know, some people think it is tough teaching Big History. I mean, teaching is very tough as it is and why add all this?

KAREN: Yeah, exactly.

CYNTHIA: Teaching is tough because when students are not engaged, you are just fighting with them. But with Big History, the teachers who teach it say that it is the best teaching of their lives because the students come alive again. I think this is because Big History raises all the big important questions that humans have always asked, but that are seldom talked about in school. Questions like: How did the world begin? Where did it come from? Where did I come from? How did I get here? What am I supposed to be doing here? What have humans done? Where are we going? Those questions have never been included in the curriculum.

KAREN: And when you start raising these questions, the students do respond.

CYNTHIA: Yes, they do. It turns out that they are humans, they are growing humans, they are adolescent humans. They are raising all these questions, but they are not finding any place to talk about them. But, of course, teachers are not used to talking about these questions in class. So, occasionally, teachers will find themselves not sure how to handle them, being embarrassed, not knowing how to proceed with all these questions that don’t really have any final answers and that people have very many opinions about. So it becomes a challenge, in teaching, to learn how to manage the discussion. And in the end it comes out, of course, that the final goal is learning to have very civil, informed, scholarly discussions about the most important and most insoluble questions.

KAREN: This sounds even more difficult than I’d imagined, because while I knew that you would be making it harder for the teachers by adding biology, and chemistry, and physics to what social studies does already, but now we’re talking about meaning and… [laughs]

CYNTHIA: [laughs] Well, it is harder but also more exciting for most teachers. Some teachers just don’t really want to get into this, and I think that’s an important point—not everybody has to teach Big History and not all the social studies teachers do. Like now, most of the teachers in the Big History Project are teaching it as an elective at the 9th grade level. So it’s only a few, one or two social studies teachers, who might choose to do it. Nobody has to do it. And it might be a science teacher or it might be a collaboration between a science teacher and a social studies teacher.

KAREN: Is that common?


KAREN: It seems that that would be a good way to approach it.

CYNTHIA: Yes. It is much more fun for both teachers. Most of my experience is at the college level, at the freshmen level. Here at Dominican University of California we require it as a freshmen course. That means we have to have twelve or thirteen sections. And a few teachers teach two sections. But we have to have at least eight or ten teachers, and they come from all departments. They come from art history, philosophy. There are actually very few historians. So there are just certain people who really like to think this way, and those are the people who like to teach Big History.

KAREN: How do they get going? And how did you got going by? You had read about David Christian’s course and you started, essentially created your own course. What do teachers do now? Do they go in all at once? Do they work over the summer to prepare a course? Or do they start adding little bits of Big History to a more general, regular world history curriculum?

CYNTHIA: Well, I think they do it all, all of the above. [laughs]

KAREN: [laughs] All of the above. Okay.

CYNTHIA: You know, if they sign up with Big History classes, they get training ahead of time, during the summer. And the history project curriculum is all there online, with way more materials than you could ever use. So you just select which part you want to use. You don’t have to create the content. You just have to learn how to manage the process. You know, how much time to spend on each thing, and you have to use your teaching skills. But you don’t have to produce the content. I think that’s really a revolution in education that is happening now, that the teacher doesn’t have to be the sage on the [inaudible-00:07:44] stage anymore, giving the content. But the content is on the internet and the teacher, then, is the coach, helping students analyze and use the content. That is happening more and more in all subjects, not just Big History.

KAREN: How does it change what teachers actually do in the classroom? And teachers are listening to this? When thinking about teaching Big History or learning more about the subjects so they could propose it to their school or perhaps add a little bit of it to what they’re teaching now—how do they best approach it themselves? I mean, personally in terms of getting up to speed? I would think that would be a question people would have.

CYNTHIA: Well, I’m very hopeful that my book will be a big help in this. If they just read my book… [laughs]

KAREN: Yes. We recommend that highly. [laughs]

CYNTHIA: I recommend that highly. [laughs] What I made is very basic common core information. They don’t need all the details and all the fancy theories, I think. I was never afraid of having these questions come up and asked without having a final answer. And of course in the old days, I had to say: “Well, I have to look that up and try to tell you tomorrow.” Today, in the classroom, whatever question comes up, we’ll just ask the students to look it up on the internet on the spot. So you don’t have to feel that you know all the answers. You just have to have this basic information, which you probably mostly have already without even knowing it. It is common, common understanding. I think it is summarized in my new book.

KAREN: Right. One of the things about Big History, Small World is that you’ve really put in a lot—there are introductions to aspects of science that help us understand the whole development, creation of the universe, the development of the universe.

CYNTHIA: Yes. That is one difference in this new book of mine, in that I put in more science and less about human history. In our college textbook, we put a lot of human history because we assumed that most teachers would be world historians who were changing their world history course into a Big History course. But that puts too much emphasis on the human in terms of what the actual story really is. And also, you know, most students and teachers don’t know as much about science as they do about the human in history. So in this new book, I gave a chapter to each of what we call the thresholds in Big History. Shall we talk about that for a minute?


CYNTHIA: When you tell a big story like this, you’ve got to have some kind of a framework. You’ve got to divide it into chapters somehow. I mean it is just an issue of narrative. Well, and then of course, people disagree about how many chapters it should have and what they should be. Some people think that maybe just four chapters is enough. That would be the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity. Those will be the four big topics. But in my books, I’ve used eight thresholds and that is following David Christian’s lead. That’s what he did in his book Maps of Time and that’s what he did with the Big History project. So of those eight thresholds, only three are human and the rest are the first five. So that’s how I’ve organized this new book and that gives more space to the scientific topics and therefore makes it easier to really understand them because you have space to delve into them completely.

KAREN: How does Big History fit with the common core and other educational standards, and with the new emphasis on STEM teaching?

CYNTHIA: Well, I think it just fits perfectly because it is the common core of human knowledge, and it provides reading across all the sciences and social studies, which is what a common core wants to do. It emphasizes critical thinking and analysis, and it just gives the core facts in a framework that makes it accessible to students. I asked a teacher this question, and he said it gives them the context they need to tell about learning again, because they don’t give a hoot [inaudible-00:13:09] about the STEM system.

KAREN: That’s fantastic.

CYNTHIA: And it is echoing the same thing that I’ve been saying, that somehow the Big History narrative provides a framework on which to learn again.

KAREN: Well, that by itself, what a recommendation.

CYNTHIA: Well, the biggest question that comes up in teaching Big History is the conflict between science and religion for some of the students who are religious.

KAREN: I’m sure it does. And how do you deal with that and how have teachers you’ve known dealt with it?

CYNTHIA: Well, they talk about it a lot. And we deal with it as if I’m talking openly in class about it. You really have to talk about it, I think, because students will openly say in class: “You know, I just don’t believe a single thing you’re saying.”

KAREN: [laughs] And certainly…

CYNTHIA: I know you have to figure out what to do.

KAREN: Certainly you make for a lively discussion.

CYNTHIA: [crosstalk] There is a wide variation of how many religious groups you have. So you talk about the fact many religious people find ways to combine their religious belief with scientific knowledge, including the Catholic Church. Many Catholics don’t realize that, although the church fought science for a long time, in the ‘90s, it made peace with science. Now they say whatever science discovers is just more that we know about how God works in the world. So for most religious people, some combination of gospel and science is possible. For the most fundamentalist, who believes in a literal reading of the Bible or some other religious text, it is not possible to combine them. And so you just talk about this openly, that you want them to learn what the scientists say they have found out, but they don’t have to believe it.

KAREN: Yeah.

CYNTHIA: And the reason for why they should learn it is simply that they live in a culture in which many people believe in scientific work, and they should just understand it. They can think about it as, you know, learning about another strange tribe [inaudible-00:15:31]. [laughs]

KAREN: [laughs]

CYNTHIA: And that usually works. The main thing is just to let them talk about it so that they can understand what their position is vis-à-vis the underlying philosophy of Big History.

KAREN: I’m sure it must make for lively conversations. What would you say the most difficult thing is about teaching Big History? Are there certain problems that you run into apart from just the challenge of teaching everything?

CYNTHIA: Well, discussing religion is probably the most difficult. Another difficult one is not letting yourself get submerged in the details, and the facts, and get behind. In teaching, most teachers, of course, have trouble getting through the facts of the material, During the second week, we were teaching, and somebody came in and said: “My heavens! I’m already one billion years behind.” [laughs]

KAREN: [laughs]

CYNTHIA: So it is very hard to get through the whole curriculum and still have time to discuss the future and, of course, it turns out that the students are most interested in the future.

KAREN: So how does the future fit in to Big History?

CYNTHIA: Well, the future fits in because you’re looking at the biggest scale, and you’re looking at the biggest trends and so you think you can project them. For instance, we know now that the way we’re pumping carbon dioxide into the air is not sustainable. We know enough about the air’s composition because it has been measured over enough years. We thank people for doing this because we used to expect that the climate would stay stable. So, you know, it is mainly environmental time that projects. We can project alternative features. We cannot keep increasing the population at the present rate or else humanity will crash in overpopulation. [inaudible-00:17:29]

KAREN: Yeah. So you talk about food security or water. So all of those things, of course, if you’ve looked at them at how they’ve developed or evolved over the billions of years then, yeah, I guess there’s a natural momentum that carries you into the future.

CYNTHIA: Exactly.

KAREN: Great. Very interesting. Wonderful to talk to you, Cynthia. I’m sure we’ll have other opportunities to talk more about some of the details. Maybe we’ll go through and have a conversation about each of the eight thresholds. That would be fun.

CYNTHIA: Okay. That would be wonderful.

KAREN: Well, thanks for taking time today.

[00:18:11 – End of Interview]