The Big Questions Facing Vermont Students Studying 'Big History'
Can one course connect the big bang and its origins of life on earth with humans and the future? That’s the idea behind Big History, which is now being taught in thousands of high schools across the country, including here in Vermont. And oh yeah, it’s backed by Microsoft founder and billionaire Bill Gates.
Heather Moore is a teacher at Vermont Commons School, where she teaches Big History to 8th graders. “It’s a modern scientific origin story,” she explained. “We need to trace 13.8 billion years of history in a single course.” She said it endeavors to answer the big questions of history: "Why are we here? Where did it all begin? And what are the stops along the way?"
The course relies on certain thresholds: the Big Bang, humans, creation of agriculture, the modern revolution and the future.
"We need to trace 13.8 billion years of history in a single course." - Heather Moore, Vermont Commons School
“It’s really covering giant subject matter. Kids get very excited about how big the questions are around Big History,” Moore said.
To teach the future, Moore said the class tries to make predictions based on past patterns. “In predicting our future with issues we’re facing right now, like global climate change and other scary things that could happen in the future, it gives kids a place to think about it and perhaps change that future for the better.”
Big History has been discussed in education circles. The New York Times recently featured Big History, and in that story Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said “that although he sees Big History as “an important intellectual movement,” he did not consider the class to be a suitable replacement for an actual history course. “At certain points, it becomes less history and more of a kind of evolutionary biology or quantum physics. It loses the compelling aspect that is at the heart of the word ‘history.’”
"At certain points, it becomes less history and more of a kind of evolutionary biology or quantum physics. It loses the compelling aspect that is at the heart of the word 'history.'" - Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, quoted in the New York Times
Moore said if Big History were the only history course students took, she would see that as a valid criticism. “It’s one out of probably eight history classes that high school students are going to get by the time they graduate. So it’s just a piece of the puzzle.”
The class is designed for 10th grade students. Vermont Commons was a pilot school for the program and is teaching it to some of the youngest. A version of the course is online for life-long learners and parents.
“I think students are hungry for this kind of class,” Moore said.