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Big History is all about learning from a constantly changing world

education Updated: Apr 08, 2016 15:49 IST
Rozelle Laha
Rozelle Laha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Highlight Story

Big History explores the evolution of humans, goes back even further than the extinction of the dinosaurs to understand the appearance of life on earth and lot more.(Shutterstock)

From the creation of the universe to the release of the latest smartphone - that’s what Big History, an emerging field of study, is all about. It links knowledge across all subjects into a single coherent story to enable us to understand the history of our universe, our planet, and us. The subject explores the evolution of humans, goes back even further than the extinction of the dinosaurs to understand the appearance of life on earth, the creation of the chemical elements, the birth of stars and the appearance of our universe in the Big Bang. Hooked and want to learn more? Macquarie University, Australia, where the term Big History was coined by historian David Christian, is launching The Big History: Connecting Knowledge, as a massive open online course.

Prof Andrew McKenna, director, Big History Institute at the university says the subject “will enable Indian students to think critically and innovatively to solve problems in fundamentally new ways.”

Why should a student study Big History?

In a world where innovation and change are constant, the teaching strategy of Big History is to enable students to make sense of the complexity of the modern world. India is undergoing massive and rapid change. It is important to be able to place that in context for India and the rest of humanity. No individual subject enables you to see the whole picture. Big History by contrast connects knowledge and gives students a framework to think about the big challenges of the 21st century.

It’s all about innovation

Students get to connect knowledge and think innovatively. They are taught about the four claim testers, which are authority, evidence, logic or intuition. Through these testers students can identify the basis on which they accept or reject a claim of knowledge. For instance, the claim that the Himalayan mountain range has been formed by the collision of the Indian plate and the Eurasian plate is based on the theory of plate tectonics, and students of Big History will be able to identify whether they accept or reject that claim of knowledge based upon one or more of the ‘testers’ This visible critical thinking process is very powerful.

Big History concept of collective learning is itself a foundational concept of innovation. What separates humans from other species is that each generation of humans learns more based on the advances of previous generations. Collective learning helps explain why network hubs like cities are so important for innovation – more people means more ideas and more innovations. For instance, in the 1830s and 1840s India was one of the most lucrative markets in the world for ice – ships would deliver frozen blocks of ice from the northeastern United States to Mumbai and Kolkata. This trade ceased following the invention and development of refrigeration, but refrigeration could not be invented until science had worked out that changing the volume or pressure of a gas (air) impacted the temperature of the gas (air). So, innovation is a process of ideas building upon each other.

Is the subject relevant for Indian students?

Big History is hugely relevant for Indian students. This capacity is in strong demand in companies and organisations across the world. Big History does not replace other subjects or specialisations, rather it complements, so that graduates are able to work more effectively in teams and to appreciate the many dimensions of the problems the organisation must solve. Real-world problems do not come neatly packaged into particular disciplines – they are complex, complicated and connected. Big History provides students with multi-domain knowledge, cross-disciplinary critical thinking, and innovative synthesis and problem solving skills required to meet the complex challenges of today’s world.

The Big History MOOC course on Coursera. Who should do it and why?

The course is suitable for Class 11 and 12 students and adult independent learners. It’s free but a certificate costs 69 AU$ (approx Rs 3,473). Certified learners willing to do an undergraduate course in any subject at the university can apply for Macquarie University Big History International Student Undergraduate Scholarship that covers tuition fees which, depending on the programme of study, will be up to 50,000 AU$ (approx Rs 2,516,574 ) per year for an undergraduate degree of 3-4 years duration.