In Big History, we’re asking big questions, such as: How did the conditions come about which make our earthly existence possible?

To understand the origins of human life and the sources of its rich complexity, Proof School’s ninth- and tenth-graders are going back as far as science can take us, to the Big Bang. But how does one prepare mental room to learn 13.82 billion years of history? To get ready, we’ve been creatively imagining scale, learning how scientists work, and thinking about how different sources of knowledge interact.

Our first day, students made “discipline hats”—the kind we wear when we take on the perspective of a certain field, like cosmology or anthropology or statistics (only more literal!). Next, they interviewed for faculty positions at “Corn University”, a fictional agricultural college, answering questions like “How can your field contribute to our quest for a fuller understanding of corn?” and “What other types of scholars do you hope to collaborate with and how?” Students’ answers ranged from the humorous to the persuasive, but everyone came away with insight into how even a mundane-seeming subject can end up touching distant and interdependent spheres of knowledge.

To learn how science slowly winnows away the merely plausible from the well-founded, we looked in depth at theories that were long accepted before being discredited, such as the geocentric model, phlogiston, and the luminiferous ether. Many of the class were at first incredulous that scholars once took such theories seriously, but when asked how they’d design experiments to falsify these theories, they got a taste of how hard scientific advances can be! We laughed at scientists who had to be convinced of the basic facts of heredity by being shown that mice with their tails cut off wouldn’t have abnormally short-tailed offspring—then realized with some discomfort that we would probably have laughed, too, at Alfred Wegener when he proposed that the shapes of the continents could be explained by their having drifted away from a past arrangement as a supercontinent.

Learning in the Big History classroom is guided by big questions—including the ones we don’t have the answers to. Students have responded to readings with questions like: How was there no life, and then suddenly there was? Will the universe ever stop increasing in structure? How do people reconcile science with deeply held religious beliefs? Can humans ever learn everything there is to know? For me as a teacher, these questions are humbling, and inspire me to remember that while I may be bringing my class up to speed on developments in the human story, we are all ultimately traveling on the same journey. In the four weeks Proof School has been open, a new hominid species has been announced and NASA has reported the best evidence yet of water on Mars. What are we going to learn next?

-Austin Shapiro