Scale switching and other history buzzwords

Scale switching and other history buzzwords

By Trevor Getz, OER Project Team
San Francisco, USA

In his keynote talk for the 2020 OC for SS conference, historian Dr. Yohuru Williams reminded an eager audience of educators about the importance of scale. He asked us to think about how our students encounter history, and how they learn to “think about how the past influences our family, our community, our nation, and our world.” Williams then gave an example of how moving between scales can help us understand history by situating Congressman John Lewis’s life within the context of his family and community as well as in relation to the national and global history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Screenshot from Yohuru Williams's OC for SS talk, featuring images of John Lewis as a young man and towards the end of his life.Dr. Yohuru Williams explaining how the life of John Lewis can help us switch scales and deepen understanding of the Civil Rights Movement.

The question of how to think across different scales is one that is at the beating heart of history as a discipline—as well as the World History Project (WHP) and Big History Project (BHP). Williams’s call to view individual lives as they exist within different orders of scale is one demonstration of the importance of this skill. Another, which we use extensively in WHP and BHP, is to guide students to answer questions at the biggest scales—world history or even the history of our Universe—using evidence from smaller scales. These smaller scales may include regions, countries, and even individuals. Similarly, we ask students to answer questions about long periods of time—thousands of years of human history and billions of years of universal history—by looking at smaller bits: hundred-year revolutions, five-year wars, all the way down to moments in time. 

Diagram depicting a series of widening circles to illustrate types of scale.

Using evidence at small scales to get a picture of what’s going on at the big scale is a “hallmark of world historical literacy,” according to Tamara Shreiner and David Zwart, who have attempted to identify the unique disciplinary features of world history pedagogy.[1] And they’re right. I mean, what other way is there to assemble a big picture of global events except by putting together lots of little pieces, and seeing what those pieces tell you?

OK, maybe an example would help. Let’s see how assembling evidence from multiple scales works for a single unit of WHP. Let’s take Unit 3 of the WHP 1750 course, on the Industrial Revolution. I’m picking this unit because it’s present in every version of the OER courses (Era 6 in WHP Origins and Unit 9 in BHP). The Unit Problem is a suitably global question: ““How was the Industrial Revolution experienced differently by people around the world?” As is befitting for such a global subject, lots of the pieces of evidence available to students are geographically extensive: an overview of the Industrial Revolution, for example, and an article that looks at the global transformations that resulted. But much of the evidence focuses on regional and national stories: a video that asks students why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain and its empire, for example, and comparisons of Japan’s and Egypt’s experiences. Then there are materials that cover even smaller scales: individual stories like the graphic biographies of a German working woman, Ottilie Baader, and the Japanese industrialist Iwasaki Yatarō; and primary sources on working conditions for boys and girls in Britain.

How do students put this material together to respond to the question of how the Industrial Revolution was experienced by different regions and people? That’s where scale-switching really comes in. Students have to evaluate how much importance to give individual stories, weighing them against articles written by historians that highlight global connections and detail the diverse experiences of different regions. As a teacher, you can help them assess the significance of each of these pieces of evidence. You can ask them to:

  • Contextualize: What is the scale of each piece of evidence? Where does it fit within the bigger system being described?
  • Support, extend, challenge: How does this piece of evidence connect to the other pieces of evidence? How does it contradict or challenge other pieces of evidence?
  • Identify viewpoints: Whose view does this piece of evidence represent? How widespread do you think that view or experience was?
  • Changing the narrative: How does this piece of evidence change the wider narrative you already have? How does it confirm that wider narrative?

While doing this, however, let’s not forget Yohuru Williams’s advice to help students recognize themselves within these scales. Across BHP and WHP, we provide several tools for this kind of work. One is the scale-switching History of Me activity. This BHP activity has students quickly write their own history from the perspective of different scales of community and time. Another activity with a scale-switching focus is WHP’s Who Am I?, which asks them to draw their identities as members of local, regional, national, and global identities. These activities can be taught at any time, and are especially powerful for helping students think about their lives and how they fit into larger processes like industrialization and migration.

Helping students think about themselves as part of wider scales reflects the power of scale-switching to make world history both more inclusive and more accurate. For a long time, world historians focused on telling histories of powerful people who shared connections of some kind. That’s likely because other communities’ stories tended to challenge their assertions. When looking at the vast changes caused by the Industrial Revolution, for example, it’s inconvenient to look at communities that resisted or were outside of those changes. But by embracing scale-switching, we can also embrace those local stories as evidence that challenges or extends our big narratives, and in the process, make them more accurate. Similarly, by asking students to think about their own stories as significant evidence in understanding world history, we can make global stories more meaningful and relevant to them.

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[1] Tamara L. Shreiner and David E. Zwart, “It’s Just Different: Identifying Features of Disciplinary Literacy Unique to World History,” The History Teacher, 53 (3), 2020, 451.

About the authorTrevor Getz is a professor of African history at San Francisco State University. He has written 11 books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

Cover image: View of Pyramid complex of Giza, in Cairo Egypt. © Kitti Boonnitrod / Moment / Getty Images.