Teaching ‘Big History’ With Visual Timelines

By Liana Loewus — February 12, 2014 1 min read
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In 2011, David Christian gave a TED Talk about “big history"—an effort to look at the history of the entire universe on a very large scale, starting 13.7 billion years ago. The idea is an audacious one: As Christian’s website explains, “In a time-lapse movie of the history of Earth, all the action takes place in the final split second.”

Christian’s Big History Project evolved into a free online course for high school and college students. And a new classroom tool—and its associated curricula—provides another way for students to dive into the elusive concept.

ChronoZoom, an online visual timeline, adds the element of space, allowing users to zoom in from the history of the cosmos to human history, and eventually to a single day. (Insert eerie music from “The Twilight Zone.”) It also allows user to create their own timelines and embed research from the Web.

Microsoft Research, GitHub, and the University of California, Berkeley, among others, contributed to the tool’s development.

And now there are also curricular materials, written by the National Council for the Social Studies and the American Historical Association, for teachers who want to use ChronoZoom in their classes. One of the units is on World War I—a timely resource given that August will mark the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak. The units, which should last one to two weeks, are free to download and can be used across multiple online platforms.

It’s tough to describe the concepts behind this tool in narrative format, so I’m including a video below. While clearly promotional, it will give you a sense of what teachers can do with it. And, if anyone out there has found a better way to teach big history, I’d appreciate hearing about it in the comments section below.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.