Social Studies

With Help From Bill Gates, ‘Big History’ to Reach 15,000 Students

By Liana Loewus — September 08, 2014 2 min read
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Bill Gates is bent on getting “Big History” into high school classrooms, according to a recent feature in the New York Times Magazine.

As I’ve written before, Big History is an audacious, multidisciplinary approach to teaching the history of the universe in a single course, beginning with the Big Bang. The lessons span billions of years and combine the sciences, arts, and humanities. The project is the brainchild of David Christian, a history professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. (For a better idea of what it all means, watch Christian’s 2011 TED Talk.)

According to the narrative in the Times, while on his treadmill at home in 2008, Gates watched a set of DVDs with Christian’s Big History course. He was enthralled. “I just loved it,” Gates told the Times. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!”

The Microsoft co-founder decided Big History should be taught in high schools across the country and has personally invested $10 million into the project. Big History, a nonprofit endeavor, now has robust website with timelines, a curriculum, lesson plans, videos, and teaching guides.

The course, Andrew Ross Sorkin of the Times writes, is spreading:

In 2011, the Big History Project debuted in five high schools, but in the three years since, Gates and Christian—along with a team of educational consultants, executives and teachers, mostly based in Seattle—have quietly accelerated its growth. This fall, the project will be offered free to more than 15,000 students in some 1,200 schools, from the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in New York to Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Mich., to Gates’s alma mater, Lakeside Upper School in Seattle. And if all goes well, the Big History Project will be introduced in hundreds of more classrooms by next year and hundreds, if not thousands, more the year after that, scaling along toward the vision Gates first experienced on that treadmill.

Sorkin seems most interested in questions around Gates’ influence on education—a topic for never-ending edu-writing fodder.

But I’m curious about the logistics of teaching the course, which Sorkin proposes might one day replace Western Civilization or World History classes. How can high school teachers, who tend to have single-subject expertise, prepare to teach the course? Is it possible to teach Christian’s curricula without a strong grasp of all the fields (history, biology, chemistry, astronomy, etc.) he intertwines?

And how would the course interact with the Common Core State Standards initiative, which Gates has fueled with hefty support? The Big History curriculum, according to Christian’s website, is common-core aligned. But Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, argues in the Times that it doesn’t exactly dovetail with the common core’s focus on reading and using primary sources. “When we think about history, what are the primary sources of Big History?” Wineburg said. “The original scientific reports of the Big Bang?”

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