If you’ve survived a debate on the state of American education, you’re probably familiar with the phrases “21st century skills” and “learning how to think.” Both have become clichés that produce ill-conceived fantasies (everybody codes, a Dead Poets Society Robin Williams in every classroom, etc.), and yet both arise from a justified sense that we can do a better job preparing young minds to navigate the modern world.
Perhaps the simplest way to change how a mind works is to alter how it categorizes ideas and information. The most prominent example of how this can be done in education is Big History, a hybrid history/science course created by Australian professor David Christian, and the subject a New York Times Magazine feature about Bill Gates’ efforts to bring the course to American schools.
The course has collected many fans and critics for eschewing a structure that can be pigeonholed as either science or history. Rather, it aims to teach the history of the world—from the Big Bang to modern society—through the lens of complexity. Instead of establishing connections to a variety of disparate scientific and historical processes, everything in the course—the leaps from stars to planets and atoms to cells—aims to illuminate one central theme.
If the purpose of education could be condensed to a single goal, it would be to teach people how to identify and understand the important characteristics of situations, both real and hypothetical. What is happening and why?
Supporters of Big History seem to see it as a one-off, a better way to teach the history of our world and nothing more. This view misses that the real innovation of the course is in grouping ideas to teach a key interdisciplinary concept that’s important for making sense of the world. This allows the course’s content to be more useful going forward. You don’t merely learn that the conditions inside a dying star allow new elements to form and pack together, ultimately leading to the creation of particles and then planets; you also have a working example of the causes and consequences of complexity to apply to situations you encounter going forward.
There are many different theories for how we generate and use knowledge, but one commonality is the importance of how information is linked. Among the simplest models is that of an associative network. When a concept is activated—a chair, for example—it then activates other concepts associated or linked with it (upholstery, relaxation, legs), with stronger associations more likely to come to mind and influence subsequent thoughts.
So what would be the ideal associative network for something like women’s suffrage? With a 20th-century American history framing, women’s suffrage will activate concepts like Seneca Falls and Susan B. Anthony, but it may also activate Scopes trial and William Jennings Bryan. This is essentially a waste, as the value of knowing about women’s suffrage is in its explication of the evolution of American democracy, not in what it teaches about the concept of 20th-century history.
Now imagine that women’s suffrage were taught in a class called Evolution, along with units on the biology of natural selection, World War I (evolution of conflict), and the 1960s (evolution of culture). The links to Susan B. Anthony would still be there, but the theme of the class would create stronger links between women’s suffrage and knowledge about these other examples of evolutions. The result is a more detailed knowledge representation of how things change and develop. Compared to having detailed chronological knowledge of American history from, say, 1910 to 1945, the former will be more useful in nearly any profession that exists today or might exist tomorrow.
In other words, let’s do away with History, Biology, Chemistry, and whatever other courses contain content not taught in Math or English. Let’s take each subject, rip it apart, and sew it into new classes built on themes that hold some of the keys to succeeding in modern society. (Even most of the novels students read in English class may be better off in classes organized around their main theme. Why not teach To Kill a Mockingbird in a class all about justice?)
None of this is to say that our conservative subject divisions don’t serve some purpose. At the university level, boundaries between fields create important specialization that fosters the development of new knowledge and trains people for specific careers. But it would be naïve to think that in the absence of courses specifically called Chemistry and Biology high school students won’t learn enough about the fields to choose a path when they get to college. And even universities are developing more interdisciplinary areas of study that would have confused hiring managers in the 1990s. Surely, high school students have no need to worry that “interdisciplinary knowledge of evolution” is not a term you can put on a resume.
Subject re-organization wouldn’t require downplaying the role of content knowledge; theoretically, there wouldn’t even have to be much change. Nearly everything we currently teach should be able to fit under some broader interdisciplinary idea. And if some less-instrumental part of a cell or obscure piece of world history doesn’t fit into or enhance any of these new subjects, we might question whether we should be teaching it at all.
What might be some promising new subjects besides the aforementioned Evolution and Justice? A class called Evidence could touch on all areas of science, but also history, statistics, philosophy, and psychology. Human Behavior or Relationships could be organized around novels driven by the relationships between characters, but also include content from biology or chemistry, psychology, and lessons on social-emotional skills. Even straightforward scientific context from chemistry and physics would be better suited to courses organized around ideas like Cause and Effect or Complex Systems. Depending on how content is divvied up, these courses could last a single semester or all four years of high school.
In the short to medium term, a drastic reconstruction of our entire high school curriculum is impossible—it’s a change that would be at least an order of magnitude larger than Common Core adoption. The sheer monetary value of textbooks, curricula, and years of teacher training that are tied to particular subjects is astronomical. Moving to a more subjective organization of content also raises the potential for the politicization of public school curricula.
Then there’s the inertia. People love their subject boundaries. Here is Big History critic and Stanford professor Sam Wineburg, for example, telling the New York Times Magazine why learning valuable methodologies requires teaching history through the strict lens of history:
What is most pressing for American high-school students right now, in the history-social-studies curriculum, is: How do we read a text? How do we connect our ability to sharpen our intellectual capabilities when we’re evaluating sources and trying to understand human motivation?
I agree! Knowing how to evaluate sources is an important skill. So why not teach it in a class called Evidence, where it will be linked to concepts in other disciplines that will help develop that skill?
If the purpose of education could be condensed to a single goal, it would be to teach people how to identify and understand the important characteristics of situations, both real and hypothetical. What is happening and why? What might have prevented it? What are the likely consequences? Regardless of whether people use mathematics, chemistry, or history as their favored tool, these are the questions we want them to be able to answer when they come across an original legal issue, a surprising sales figure, or a major environmental disaster.
Abandoning old ways of thinking about how knowledge ought to be categorized is not an easy thing to do, but doing so will eventually allow us to better prepare people to answer the important questions. As Big History suggests, we live in a world that’s vastly more complex than it was even 25 years ago. When will our subject boundaries evolve to reflect that complexity?