Review by Jennifer Sitkin, Common Sense Education | Updated November 2017

Big History Project

Fascinating look at life's bigger questions with a fresh perspective

Subjects & skills
Subjects
  • English Language Arts
  • Social Studies

Skills
  • Character & SEL
  • Critical Thinking
Grades This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
9–12
Common Sense says (See details)
Teachers say (3 Reviews)

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Pros: High schoolers will benefit from looking at their world from a broader perspective.

Cons: The reading level of some texts surpasses that 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 in history, humanities, critical thinking, and science.

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.

Teachers can manage classes, assign tests and surveys, and access support resources from the Console. The Resources section has useful webinars and PDFs with information on standards alignment for World History as well as the 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 toward 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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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 interactive activities, videos, lessons, discussions, writing prompts, and assessments; there are even some ready-made Project Based Learning (PBL) activities, among other resources.

Full Disclosure: Big History Project and Common Sense Education share a funder; however, that relationship does not impact Common Sense Education's editorial independence and this learning rating.

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 students -- 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 and support resources are very thoughtfully designed and comprehensive. 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 students. That said, a lot of the topics and readings are high level, and even with the 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 students access to this thought-provoking curriculum. Teachers new to Big History are bound to be interested in teaching it, and they should join the Big History Project Community to get a range of ideas about the many ways that it can be implemented with students. Be forewarned, though, that there's so much to the program that new teachers will likely want to explore Big History over the summer in preparation for the following school year.

 

Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

Students will enjoy considering life's bigger questions through both digital and non-digital resources. Each unit has a range of videos, activities, and assignments that should appeal to different types of learners. 

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

The Big History Project is innovative in its approach to curriculum and it supports the development of essential skills. More differentiation in text complexity could be beneficial for struggling readers. 

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

The amount of support might be overwhelming, but the site's resources answer almost any question. In addition to webinars and teacher guides, there is a teacher community to promote collaboration. 


Common Sense Reviewer
Jennifer Sitkin Classroom teacher

Teacher Reviews

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Featured review by
Lisa E. , Classroom teacher
Classroom teacher
Pick and Choose Resources to Lay Foundational Middle School Skills
As the name states, Big History is a great resource for helping students tackle big questions. The curriculum pulls together thematic resources from various civilizations to help students investigate important concepts like how humans populated the globe or how trade networks developed. Since I teach middle school, a lot of the material is too advanced. I like introducing students to this sort of thinking, though, and many of the resources are leveled. My class - mostly ancient civilizations with some modern connections - doesn't lend itself to the entire course (which would be awesome to teach), so I pick and choose.
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