Last fall King’s Academy joined forces with the Blake School in Minnesota and Columbus Academy in Ohio to offer ninth graders an exciting opportunity to learn about the origins of existence from an all-encompassing lens that spans billions of years.
The Big History Project, based on the hybrid academic discipline of the same title spearheaded by historian David Christian, introduces students to 13.8 billion years of history – starting with the big bang and leading up to the present day – through a non-traditional multidisciplinary approach that simultaneously builds a framework for other classes.
During the year-long course, which was developed in partnership with the Global Online Academy (GOA), students survey the history of the universe across eight different “thresholds” (critical points in time), review the relevant “Goldilocks conditions” (the ideal situation for a phenomenon to occur) and apply principles and theories from several academic fields to fully grasp the historical and cultural significance of these events.
The “big historians” then question one another, form their own ideas and collaborate with fellow students and teachers from other schools.
“Our shared mission to teach an excellent Big History course drives our agenda, rather than attachments to individuals’ scholarly interests or preferences,” said GOA Instructional Designer Susan Fine on the official GOA blog. “We divide up responsibilities, providing leadership roles for everyone and continual feedback, which leads to ongoing improvements.”
The initiative was launched in 2011 with the support of Bill Gates, who teamed up with Christian to provide world-wide access to the curriculum for free. It has since evolved to include students from schools across the globe and – for the first time this year – from King’s Academy, where 15 freshmen are currently enrolled in the class taught by Faculty Member Ben Watsky.
“The course offers an incredibly broad perspective on history; the big picture sticks with kids,” said Watsky. “They learn that big forces lead to change. There’s a real sense of understanding of what these thresholds represent and how complexity in the universe occurs.”
Labelled by educators as a “modern scientific origin story,” the Big History Project fosters autonomous learning while providing students with the best of both worlds – a relaxed in-class environment as well as a unique online learning platform, where students can communicate globally via accessible tools such as Canvas, Skype and email.
“You get to meet people from different parts of the world and discuss really big questions, controversial thoughts and ideas,” said Raya Tarawneh ’18. “You can go anywhere, there are no limits.”
As a core high school course, reading, writing and research are an integral part of the project, but it also cultivates a strong sense of independence and responsibility, according to Watsky. And despite the challenges of dealing with different time zones, students always receive steady support from their teachers and peers both in the classroom and online.
“The course is accepting to all ideas and all thoughts, and it doesn’t exclude or discriminate against anything,” said Sara Nahhas ’18.
In addition to establishing meaningful relationships that would otherwise be impossible, “the level of communication created is invaluable,” said Watsky. And whether students are discussing star formations or sharing news from their parts of the world, “there’s a degree of connection and empathy that couldn’t exist in a purely brick and mortar class.”
King’s students have “keyed into the narrative and have a real sense of the scale of everything,” Watsky added, and there’s no doubt the course will continue to be a “big” hit.
“I love this course because it’s history mixed in with philosophy, and it’s served as an academic outlet to consider existential questions, such as ‘where do I belong in the universe?’” said Lynne Khouri ’18.