Bill Gates wants to change how students learn history.
As a recent feature in The New York Times Magazine details, the Microsoft founder and current richest man in the world went on a mission to change history curricula in the US after he became enamoured with “Big History” — a series of DVD lectures from Australian professor David Christian.
The DVD series “put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth,” writes The Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin.
In short, it’s a holistic approach to history, rather than a strictly chronological one.
A lesson on the Big Bang theory, for example, “offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe,” Sorkin writes.
Watch the first “Big History” lesson on the Big Bang below:
Since discovering the videos in 2008, Gates has personally invested $US10 million in the Big History Project, in the hopes of eventually creating an integrated history course for high schools around the country.
The program launched in 2011 in just five high schools, Sorkin reports, but has surged in the three years since its inception. This fall, Big History is being taught in around 1,200 schools — from Brooklyn to Ann Arbor to, Sorkin notes, Gates’s alma mater, Lakeside Upper School in Seattle. The number of schools implementing Big History curricula is expected to continue to climb over the next two years.
One issue that Gates and Christian initially faced seems the stem from the academic outsider nature of their course.
“We didn’t know when the last time was that somebody introduced a new course into high school … How does one go about it? What did the guy who liked biology — who did he call and say, ‘Hey, we should have biology in high school?’ It was pretty uncharted territory. But it was pretty cool,” Gates told Sorkin.
According to Gates, schools were not prepared to handle the hybrid course — which would likely involve them having to either retrain teachers or revise longstanding lessons.
“You’ve got to get a teacher in the history department and the science department — they have to be very serious about it, and they have to get their administrative staff to agree. And then you have to get it on the course schedule so kids can sign up,” Gates said.
Gates is no stranger to the world of education, having spent hundreds of millions of dollars to push through projects such as the Common Core Standards Initiative. The Big History Project, Gates tells Sorkin, allows for the philanthropist to move past solely funding high-level education policy changes, and actually have a tangible impact on the evolving nature of the classroom — which has seen much less of the influence of technology compared to most other aspects of life.
“I wanted to explore how you did digital things … That was a big issue for me in terms of where education was going — taking my previous skills and applying them to education,” Gates said.
Below, a slide from a lecture Christian gave this year uses Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” as a platform to show the various disciplines that Big History incorporates:
According to Christian, all of these different elements come together to tell a full story. “This captures very nicely and very simply the ambition of Big History — to connect disciplines,” Christian says in his lecture.
The “Big History” classes also seem to be resonating with current students. Sorkin visited a classroom in Brooklyn where high school students were learning about “extinction events” — “why and how various life-forms have died out,” Sorkin writes.
Here’s a “Big History” video on evolution and extinction:
As one student told Sorkin, “At first I hated it, because I was like, ‘I hate science.’ But it actually just opened my perspective that I never knew about. I wasn’t looking forward to it at all, and then I grew to love the class.”
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