Common Sense Review
Updated November 2013

Big History Project

Fascinating look at life's bigger questions offers a fresh perspective
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Common Sense Rating 4
  • An overview graphically lays out Big History's units.
  • Resources are listed within each Unit Overview.
  • Zoomable, high-resolution infographics help give context.
  • Teachers can manage classes and assignments in the Console.
  • The Community page offers support resources.
High schoolers can really benefit from the intellectual exercise of looking at their world from a broader perspective.
Some concepts are quite abstract, and the reading level of some texts surpasses the reading level of 9th and 10th graders; extra scaffolding may be needed to ensure student buy-in and comprehension.
Bottom Line
A wonderfully innovative and divergent way to teach foundational concepts through a forward-thinking lens blends history, humanities, critical thinking, and science.
Jennifer Sitkin
Common Sense Reviewer
Classroom teacher
Common Sense Rating 4
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 4

Students will enjoy considering life's bigger questions through non-digital social activities. The digital components would be even more exciting if they encouraged more personalized learning through individual exploration and discovery.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer? 4

As a high school learning resource, it's delightfully innovative. The curriculum design is solid and seamlessly Common Core-aligned. More differentiation in text complexity would be nice.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students? 5

There's so much support it might be overwhelming, but the site's resources answer almost any question. There's also an active teacher forum for help. The site could offer clearer guidance for those with limited computer access.

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How Can Teachers Use It?

Some of Big History's parts could be taught piecemeal -- as units in an existing history or science class -- but Big History will likely work best if taught in total. While best suited to classrooms with regular computer access, the course could be taught with more limited device access; however, this would require some computer lab time, as well as a hefty amount of printing and copying.

Beyond teaching and facilitating the course, Big History can be a great launching point for further inquiry -- there are lots of PBL opportunities. The site makes some suggestions here, but the possibilities are really endless; any unit could spin off into a variety of inquiry-based research projects. You can develop some example topics for each unit. However, you could also allow your students the space to come up with their own topics, and indulge their sense of wonder.

The teacher dashboard has an active Community section, with FAQs and a handy message board. The Resources section has useful PDFs with information on standards alignment for World History as well as the emerging Next Generation Science standards. Overall, Big History's cross-curricular approach to covering the standards is refreshing, especially since so many other digital tools seem geared towards explicit, drill-practice-and-memorize, Common Core instruction. Rather, Big History aims to teach standards-based ideas through meaningful, substantive, lifelong-learning activities -- it's best to implement and teach the course in this spirit.

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What's It Like?

The Big History Project is best described as an interactive humanities course hosted online -- free and accessible to teachers everywhere. Part science, part history, and perhaps even part meaning-of-life, the overall scope of Big History almost defies categorization. The theory goes that if you give high school students this larger context, they'll better understand the complexities of their world, both today and into the future.

The curriculum is centered on moments of increasing complexity in the universe. Big History dubs these "threshold" moments, or times when the universe's "ingredients, under just the right conditions, combined to create greater complexity," culminating with the modern world as we know it. Whether it's the formation of new chemical elements or early humans' collective learning, understanding these processes of change can help prepare students to deal with the major social, political, ecological, and technological revolutions of today and tomorrow.

Designed as a yearlong (or semester) course, the curriculum is divided into 10 units. The first few units cover scientific thresholds like the Big Bang, the formation of stars, and new chemical elements. The next units cover our solar system as well as the beginnings of life on earth. The latter half of the curriculum delves into more familiar social studies territory with units on collective learning, the agricultural and modern revolutions, and the world today. Every unit has what's called a "main talk" video to pique kids' interest, giving context to ideas that may be abstract or complex. Every main talk video ends with a big, essential question. Interactive activities, lessons, discussions, writing prompts, and assessments follow; there are even some ready-made Project Based Learning (PBL) activities, among other resources.

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Is It Good For Learning?

A broader perspective of the world might be just the thing for today's high schoolers. Big History asks the type of fundamental and important questions that can often fall by the wayside in today's increasingly drill-and-testing focused educational landscape: What are we a part of? What effect does the past have on me today? How will my actions affect the future? Offering kids opportunities to consider these ideas is sure to engage them. While a few topics could be a bit abstract for some kids -- especially those in the lower grade levels -- the videos are produced in engaging ways, with expert testimonials and illustrative graphics. Individual units are neatly divided into lessons, each with engaging activities and strong learning content.

Big History's goal is top-notch, and the curriculum is very thoughtfully designed. There's great potential here to engage students in the kind of thinking that can inform all of their learning thereafter; this kind of learning is such an important experience for kids. That said, a lot of the topics and readings are high level, and even with the main talk videos and activities, teachers may have to do more scaffolding if teaching the course to the general population. Nevertheless, it would be time well spent to give kids access this thought-provoking curriculum.

Teachers new to Big History are bound to be interested in teaching it, but they might want more information up front about the time and classroom resources it will take to implement a course of this scope. Specifically, it would be helpful to have more guidance and examples about various ways the program could be implemented with different levels of access to technology. For classrooms that do have ample access to technology, it would be great to see Big History's digital tools do even more to stimulate students' personalized exploration; adaptive features could help create even more opportunities for guided, self-paced discovery. With clearer models of how the course could be integrated and more personalized digital tools, Big History has the potential to expose an even wider range of learners to a whole new way of seeing the world.

Note that while Big History Project and Common Sense Education share a funder, Common Sense Education always maintains its editorial integrity and independence.

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See how teachers are using Big History Project