BHP Big Skills: Thresholds of Increasing Complexity

BHP Big Skills: Thresholds of Increasing Complexity

By the OER Project Team
Washington, USA

Too often history is just a long list of people, places, and things to memorize. Students struggle to put them together. They might learn about Ancient Greece and Rome, the great states and empires of Africa, or the contributions of Islamic scholars, but not how these topics connect to one another. Students might focus on a single primary source and even be able to provide details about its context. Yet it’s increasingly rare that students are able to explain the relationship of one source or one event to another—to frame history as a coherent story.

Narrative is a powerful means of helping students connect the dots of history. In the Big History Project, there are eight significant moments, or thresholds, that help students make sense of the history of the entire Universe. You might be wondering how dividing all 13.8 billion years of history into eight thresholds is even possible much less comprehensible for students. These thresholds aren’t just the big events for students to memorize—they help frame the history of the Universe. Each threshold is composed of precise ingredients under the “just right” conditions that, when combined, create something completely new and more complex. Students begin to see the components of the Universe, how they fit and work together, and how these thresholds relate to humanity and their own lives.

The story starts with the Big Bang, continues with the first stars and then the first chemical elements. From there, the narrative unfolds with the formation of the Solar System and the emergence of life on Earth. Humans arrive and begin to learn collectively, and then begin to farm, and finally learn to use energy in massive quantities with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which is the start of the modern age. This story, like all narratives in history, is a very brief summary—one that invites students to ask how each article, video, and activity of the course connects to the previous threshold and to speculate how it might connect to the next. The result is a more coherent approach to teaching and learning history.

From a cognitive standpoint, it turns out this can be very important for learning. Narratives create a context that helps students make sense of the facts of history—a mental model. It’s important to keep in mind that all narratives are generalizations. They will gloss over details in places or imperfectly fit the details of history in others. Throughout the year, it’s important for students to ask themselves whether a single detail supports, extends, or challenges the larger narrative. Students should understand places where the narrative doesn’t quite work, and then ask if there is an account of the history that fits better. This is how students move from merely learning about history to actually doing the work of a historian. Narrative is what brings history to life.

We can also think about this approach to using narratives as a tool. They not only help us connect and make sense of history; they provide a means for students to connect historical events to the world they live in today. This is what Bob Bain calls “a usable history.” If we think about a current event as the latest in a long string of events, it invites questions about the larger context and how we dealt with similar events in the past. It invites students to contextualize current events across disciplines in a way that connects to the thresholds of Big History.

To learn more about how to incorporate narrative in the classroom, check out Session 7.2: Narrative and Thresholds in the Teaching Big History online professional development course.

Cover image: Narrative and Thresholds Tool: Thresholds Graphic, illustration by Liz Clarke, CC BY-NC 4.0.