What Big History can achieve in school education
If school is to make a difference beyond learning for the final exam, it must make sense as a whole. Then it should be possible to make a connection between what is expected in school and life outside school. In my school days, this meant that we learn not for school but for life. So the idea is not new, but it has to be rethought all the time.
First of all, the subjects are grouped into areas.
Core subjects: Maths, German (mother tongue), 1st foreign language (English)
Scientific and technical field: biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy
Social sciences: history, geography, social studies, economics and law, ethics/religious studies
Musical-artistic field: art, music, sport
An impressive range and number of subjects have to be mastered.
However, the educational mission is also to teach in an interdisciplinary way and at least in part bilingually.
For me, the question arises, how are students taught that the subjects within these fields are related, and how are the connections and interactions between the fields of nature and society conveyed?
Today's problems of a global nature such as climate change, clean oceans, water supply, renewable energies, the ozone layer (and currently a virus pandemic) are not problems that can be solved only within the natural sciences. They affect societies all over the world. But even in the social sciences, they cannot be considered in isolation from the findings of the natural sciences. These interactions should be explicitly addressed (and of course tackled). But that means going beyond the boundaries of the subjects. Big History makes this visible and promotes the necessary interdisciplinary thinking and cooperation. (More on this under Big History Project and Big History School)
After all, the students do not only want to work through an overwhelming amount of subjects, but also recognize what connects the different areas of knowledge with each other, a common thread so to speak. For me, Big History is the common thread, the structure that could hold together such an impressively detailed curriculum. A subject in which all the others come together, starting with work on and with texts in language teaching (mother tongue and foreign language), the use of mathematics, the need to study in detail (to a certain extent) biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy, history and social studies, economics and law. The latter, after all, are based on a certain view of the world and are the result of human interaction with nature. At the end it is also possible to make the connection to ethics, music and art. Big History connects all these subjects in one big context, it provides a kind of framework in which all students and all subjects come together. Thus it contrasts with and complements the specialization which begins with the compulsory elective course from grade 9 and continues and deepens in grades 11 + 12 and therefore provides students with something encompassing that is meaningful and connecting.
Figuratively speaking, the aim is to break up the ubiquitously lamented compartmentalized thinking (or not to let it come up in pure form at all) without destroying the compartments.
You can call it, as David Christian does, a modern origin story (and discuss it in Ethics). From my point of view, however, Fred Spier's formulation is more aptly: „Big History offers a fundamentally new understanding of the human past, which allows us to orient ourselves in time and space in a way no other form of academic history has done so far. Moreover, the big history approach helps us to create a novel theoretical framework, within which all scientific knowledge can be integrated in principle.“ (Spier, Big History and The Future of Humanity, 2nd edition 2015, page 1)
If, on the basis of this comprehensive education, young people then decide on a profession and thus, in most cases, on a tiny part of what makes up human society, Big History will hopefully make it easier for them to maintain their connection to the big encompassing picture, once they have learned quite practically that interdisciplinary thinking and cooperation are needed to maintain a highly complex society. If they have acquired competences at school, i.e. abilities and skills that they can also apply in other life situations.
Big history as the common thread running through the highlights of our development from the Big Bang to the present day is perhaps not so quickly forgotten as the many details of the individual subjects. It provides (also throughout adult life) a framework for lifelong learning. You can zoom in if you want to know more about the details, and zoom out again to see in context what you have learned from the details.
Here I have added Big History to the table providing an overview of the school subjects in Thuringia - primary school and grammar school.
Table 2: Overview school subjects in Thuringia with Big History included
In my view, Big History has the potential to help teachers grow beyond their own subject and to see their subject in the context of the other subjects. Students often experience teachers in a way that teachers only see their own subject and consider it important, while students themselves are confronted with a whole range of subjects. (Which can be quite frustrating when teachers use such a narrow view as the basis for measuring the amount of homework and simply forget that there are other subjects with homework for the student).
I see another advantage in the fact that with Big History as a framework, the individual teacher also becomes a student again, or better said, a learner, and that is one who guides the students to learn, even beyond the teacher’s own subject. In this way, interdisciplinary work is demonstrated practically and not just invoked theoretically.
If school leads to learning in this way, then school can make a real difference beyond learning for the final exam and produce empowered, informed and reflective citizens who remain active in their education throughout adult life. Students would become people who are able to educate themselves.
On the following pages I will now describe how this can look like in practice using the
and the example of Italy.