Author's blog

On this page, observations of various kinds will appear that are related to big history teaching as well as to big history in general.
Earlier blogs
- Big history and web site design
- Did Galileo overstate the magnification of his telescope? 
- Did Columbus falsify his latitude measurements?
- Reflections on observations in big history
October 26, 2015
For about twenty years I struggled with the question of how to formulate content teaching goals for big history. The main problem was that setting such goals seemed very arbitrary, as if teachers just knew what students ought to learn. But how would teachers know that, I wondered? And why those goals, and not other ones?
Taking distance over the summer of 2015 helped me to look at this issue with a refreshed mind. First of all, I realized that during the past twenty years the circumstances had not been very favorable for defining such goals in our team-taught courses, because all the guest lecturers preferred to do their own things, while they had little or no time to adapt their contributions to any imposed schemes.
Furthermore, during this time we were very much experimenting with how to teach and understand big history without having any clear examples or models at our disposal that we could use. In fact, we as organizers considered ourselves very lucky that so many of these very talented and experienced academics from so many different disciplines were willing to participate and share their knowledge so generously.
In coordinating our big history courses, we therefore opted for informal talks after the lectures (with drinks). That turned out to be very efficient, extraordinarily informative, and also a lot of fun, not least because we could discuss any questions that were raised. This informal approach also ensured that over all these years, all our teachers remained enthusiastic about what they were doing, which was conveyed to the students.
By writing my own big history books and using them in our courses as required reading, I sought to provide a theoretical backbone. That has usually worked well, or so it seems to me, but this solution did not provide sufficiently clear guidelines for how to formulate big history content learning goals other than the content of the lectures and the book.
Only after I began teaching my own Amsterdam University College big history course in 2009 could I begin to further explore all of that. But while trying to formulate content learning goals for those courses, I got stuck again. And none of the information that I consulted about how to formulate learning goals helped me out either. In fact, it made the situation worse, because following such guidelines reinforced my impression that setting such goals seemed very arbitrary.
To my great surprise and delight, however, the solution to this conundrum turned out to be very simple, although with potentially far-reaching consequences.
Not very originally, I have been arguing for a long time that everything we do in academia is based on asking questions and seeking answers to them by using empirical observations and scholarly interpretations.
So why not try to define the content learning goals in such a way, I suddenly wondered, by asking questions and providing answers to them, which are the learning goals? For example: Chapter 3 of my book seeks to answer the questions: “How do scientists think the universe emerged and developed, and what did it look like? And what are the important pieces of empirical evidence and scholarly interpretations that have led to this view?”
By formulating content learning goals systematically in terms of answers to questions it suddenly became easy to define them, at least in general ways. Of course endless discussions about details are still possible, but only within certain limits, because all these more specific learning goals must refer back to the questions asked.
I have now defined the content learning goals both of my book and my courses provisionally in such ways, while in class I now start every session by telling the students what today’s central questions are.
This seems to work well, not least because students seem much more interested in answering questions than in digesting information without knowing why they would be doing that. As a result, students’ motivations and engagement suddenly appear enhanced, not least because we can also discuss in class why the central questions are deemed important, and whether the answers to these questions are sufficiently correct.
This approach to formulating learning goals can be introduced into all forms of education, starting at primary schools, or perhaps even before that age. This would make clear to our young learners why certain subjects are on the school agenda. For instance: why would we want to write and read language? And why would we do that in certain ways?
In other words, this approach allows our students to question all of that; to pose different questions, or phrase the questions differently; and to come up with alternative answers, as long as they conform to the standards deemed acceptable (which are also open to discussion). By following this approach, all these aspects of what happens in class  suddenly become clear, and can be discussed as a result.
This simple insight suddenly also explained why I had been frustrated so often during my own education. If this had happened as part of my own learning experiences, it would have been so much more stimulating and fun.
It also made me realize that our traditional ways of teaching may to some extent be similar to the ways mythical origin stories are told, namely by telling the story without first posing the questions that these stories seek to answer.
So are our ‘traditional’ ways of defining content learning goals perhaps also a relic of such forms of religious teaching? Would defining these goals by first posing the central questions perhaps contribute to more open discussions about how to view reality, in which authority is based on empirical evidence and scholarly interpretations instead of on reputations and authority? Would our students perhaps be more engaged as a result, because they will know why they are doing what they are doing in class?
Why did these insights not become mainstream earlier? Is this perhaps partially caused by the fact that many of our educators are often not empirical researchers themselves, so that for lack of first-hand experience they may not be sufficiently familiar with how the academic method works in practice?
And have academic researchers perhaps not taken enough time to reflect on how this hard-won academic knowledge should be presented to students? Is this perhaps an unfulfilled part of the mission started by Wilhelm von Humboldt and others in their efforts to systematically combine teaching and research at universities that they introduced at Berlin University in the early nineteenth century, which has been copied all around the world?
On further reflection, I began to wonder how questions emerged in big history. What are questions? How could we define them, and how did they emerge and differentiate? What can be seen as the first questions asked, and answered, and what did they look like? What were the organisms that did so, how, when, and why? What were their precursors? How did all of this change over time? I am now beginning to explore this theme, a little big history of questions, which I hope to elaborate soon.
In short: a simple insight with considerable ramifications, or so it seems to me.
International Big History Association
Un. of Amsterdam big history
Cosmic Evolution
Big History Project
Book: Teaching Big History
Bill Bryson: Short History of Nearly Everything
Other useful stuff on the web
Other big history
How to use the book
Course models
Learning goals and objectives
Teaching tools
Assignments (little big histories)
Answers to FAQs by students
Questions by students and teachers that go beyond the book
Examination models
Teaching big history