BHP updates: A wider view of the world

BHP updates: A wider view of the world

By the OER Project Team

Every year, we strive to make the Big History Project course even better. This year is no different, and thanks to some great ideas from teachers like you, we’ve got some exciting updates to share. We’re extremely excited to announce the publication of six new articles, a new repeated activity, and an update to our Disciplines materials. Let’s take a quick look at some of these additions to the BHP course!

Deeper connections with disciplines

Interdisciplinarity is a core theme in BHP, but if students can’t make the connection between the disciplines they learn about and Big History, the focus on disciplines can feel forced. So we updated the Discipline Cards to help students make these connections. For the updates, we provided Big History questions that scholars of a particular discipline would help answer, as well as the kind of evidence they would use to answer those questions. Once we made those changes, we realized the cards had a lot going on in them! So we redesigned the cards to make them easier to use in class. Instead of cramming six disciplines onto one page, we’ve moved to a three-per-page format, which has made them much easier to read.

Samples of new BHP discipline cards.
Islamic scholars in BHP

Although these articles were created together, with a common look, theme, and purpose, they’re also intended to fit seamlessly within the course. These new articles place an emphasis on the global history of science, highlighting the contributions of scholars from the Islamic world to complement the more commonly told stories of European scholars like Galileo and Copernicus.

The articles also allow teachers to introduce the concept of collective learning a little earlier in the course. Through the motif of “standing on the shoulders of giants” or “standing on the shoulders of invisible giants,” which is used both in the text and in accompanying illustrations, students will begin to understand how collective learning allows scholars to continually build on past ideas and innovations.

We worked closely with two artists to create illustrations for these articles that help create a unified look and theme. We hope these illustrations will help spark interest and discussion, as well as help build students’ image analysis skills. To this end, for each article we’ve included one or two questions specifically focused on image analysis in the article’s accompanying Three Close Reads questions.

Comics-style illustrations from the Islamic scholars articles.

Lesson 2.1 – How Did Our Understanding of the Universe Change?

Read: “Standing on the Shoulders of Invisible Giants”

This article introduces students to the concept of collective learning and helps them raise questions about how collective learning takes place. It asks about who is celebrated in our stories of collective learning and who is left out. It scaffolds later articles in the lesson by allowing students to see different scholars as part of a continuing conversation rather than as isolated thinkers. This will prepare students to contextualize and potentially evaluate different scholars’ contributions to collective learning when they encounter multiple viewpoints about our Solar System later on in the lesson.

Read: “The Maragha School: The Missing Link? 

Building on the previous article, this one provides students with a specific case study about our collective learning about the Solar System. Other articles in this lesson describe views of the Universe, and in this one students will be introduced to a medieval Persian observatory and the scholars who worked in that scholarly tradition. They’ll encounter a debate about how significant those scholars were when it comes to changing our views of the Solar System. This new article fits perfectly alongside articles about Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Galileo, as it raises the question: Is there a missing link? 

Comics illustration of figures standing on the battlements of an ancient Persian building.

Lesson 3.2—Ways of Knowing: Stars and Elements

Read: “Jābir ibn Hayyān: Pure Metal”

This article focuses on early experimental practices in alchemy and how these practices may have influenced the development of chemistry as a discipline. It also takes a critical look at the figure of Jābir ibn Hayyān, asking whether he really existed as a single scholar or whether the work attributed to him was actually the product of many thinkers. In this lesson, students will look at chemistry as a way of knowing, and will learn how different chemists have harnessed the ideas and methods of this discipline to develop knowledge about the Universe. This story about ibn Hayyān gives students a glimpse into the very early development of chemistry, before it was the precise science it is now.

Illustration of a spectral figure in a turban surrounded by past and future scientists.

Lesson 4.3—Ways of Knowing: Our Solar System and Earth

Read: “Ibn al-Haytham: The Polymath”

In this article, students will learn about early work in the field of optics. Linking back to the collective learning theme, this article shows how Ibn al-Haytham built on the knowledge of scholars before him and lay the groundwork for future scholars. It also touches on his pioneering approach to the scientific method. In this lesson, students will continue thinking about disciplinary ways of knowing. Ibn al-Haytham provides a case study of a particular approach to observation and experimentation during the Middle Ages, preparing students to ask later in the lesson: “Was there science before the scientific revolution?”

A turbaned scholar looks through a pinhole in the wall at a representation of the universe.

Lesson 8.1—Exploration and Interconnection

Read: “Ahmad ibn Mājid: The Lion of the Sea”

This article takes a close look at knowledge about navigation, specifically knowledge developed in the Indian Ocean region. This knowledge grew as sailors, like ibn Majid, and seafaring merchants shared their experiences and observations, creating a vast sea of collective learning about navigation. In this lesson on exploration and interconnection, students will see an example of how interconnection itself is vital to collective learning, and how explorers both rely on and create new knowledge as they set off to learn more about the world.

Illustration of a scholar in turban and vest writing with quill and ink over a map.

Lesson 8.3—Commerce and Collecting Learning

Read: “Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi: Thank You for Algebra”

Picking up on the theme of collective learning again, this article asks us to think about the teachers, translators, and commentators who extend our learning by putting it into a new context, synthesizing it, interpreting it, and making it accessible. Looking at arithmetic, algebra, and algorithms, this article tells the story of how these innovative concepts traveled from society to society, focusing on the contributions of al-Khwarizmi. These concepts were crucial to our collective knowledge and influenced finance, commerce, and innovation across disciplines. Students will be able to use this article to think about the massive influence of new numbering systems and algebra on trade, exchange, and economic and political life more generally. 

Illustration of an Islamic scholar sketching out equations, connecting figures representing older mathematicians with modern innovations.

  • One of our district initiatives has been to add more diverse voices to our overall narrative in social studies, so I can't wait to add these Islamic Scholars to the mix this year!!

  • I'm glad to see these resources included with the BH material.  A "BH"-worthy Islamic scholar would be Ibn Khaldun, whose book The Muqaddimah is an early attempt at crafting a "big history."  Check it out!

  • This update looks awesome. I am super excited to have a new layer to the universal narrative and another cultural perspective to that has been so wonderfully scaffolded for us teachers.

  • Those drawings are beautiful and I'm looking forward to incorporating these into my course.  I really like that this is a resource/series that is used throughout the year as opposed to just something on the Golden Age of Islam.  Always look forward to the new material and seeing how I can use infuse them in my class. 

  • I'm so excited for these updates and can't wait to start planning on using them in my class. It will be a fresh new perspective to infuse into class and it is nice that it is infused throughout the course instead of in just one or two places! I'm sure this took a tremendous amount of effort.