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Team Teaching an Interdisciplinary Course: a History and a Science Teacher and their Students Collaborate on Learning Big History Together

James A. Diskant and Ulpiano Frederick A. Pontillas


     While many teachers talk about collaborating with one another, there are few opportunities for genuine collaboration between teachers from different disciplines. Yet, much of the scholarship about teaching and learning argues for its importance for students and teachers alike. 1 At our school, the John D. O' Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, one of Boston's three "exam schools" ( magnet schools for students who test to be admitted to it), it is quietly happening as teachers are working together in planning and teaching an interdisciplinary course in "Big History." Aided by resources provided through the Big History Project, this course will look at 13.8 billion years of history—from the Big Bang to modernity—though multiple academic lenses.  Our daily collaboration allows each of us to grow professionally, and share knowledge of our respective disciplines not only with each other, but with our students. Given the interdependent world in which we live, this work mirrors the skills that students will need in college and in the work force.2 Both of us are veteran teachers and are enjoying this unique opportunity to expand beyond our own comfort zones and teaching expertise; after all, why not learn with the students and share the excitement of learning in a project-based course that integrates different disciplines together in one course? This article addresses the background that led to our approach, offers a few examples of what we bring to the course, the advantages of this approach for us and our students, the challenges that we face in teaching in this manner, and our reflections about the merits this work offers for us and our students as we work to model many of the skills that students require in the world, in the hope that they emerge as better problem solvers and collaborators.

     As a member of the Executive Council of the World History Association (WHA), Jim, a historian and a history and government teacher, had first learned of the course in "Big History" a number of years ago. When he attended the WHA's Annual Meeting in Albuquerque in June 2012, designers of the Big History Project asked him to teach the course to 9th and/or 10th graders.3  During the fall of 2012 administrators at the O'Bryant and  curriculum planners at Boston Public Schools agreed to launch the course at the O'Bryant, along with teachers at three other schools where each teacher is teaching the course on their own, which is more common. Fred, a zoologist and science teacher, agreed to join Jim in its planning in spring of 2013 to teach the course as a senior capstone course instead of to 9th graders so as to be able to spend more time on content than skills, and to maintain the current sequence of history courses.  Now that we have been teaching together for almost two years, we would like to share the experiences of ourselves and our students; the challenges we have overcome and those that remain in pursing this approach.

     The course's overarching goal is to reveal common themes and patterns to help students better understand people, civilizations, and our place in the universe (See: The course uses the inquiry model, supported by well-developed online resources. It is divided into 10 investigative units: What is Big History?, The Big Bang, Stars and Elements, Our Solar System and Earth, Life, Early Humans, Agriculture and Civilization, Expansion and Interconnection, Acceleration, and The probes an essential question, which enables students to better understand the connections that have previously existed and to work on answering unanswerable questions about our place in the universe. The course employs a variety of teaching and learning approaches, including lectures from scholars in the form of videos, readings, discussions, experiments, debates, projects, and presentations. It concludes with a Little Big History Project in which students investigate an object over time.

     In order to work well, a number of aspects had to have been in place for us: a commitment to collaborate, an openness to share and critique one another, a willingness to share knowledge and to admit whenever either one of us (or even sometimes both of us) does not know a particular piece of the content that students should be learning. We also had to spend time (over the weekend we email and plan by talking on the phone) outside the designated school day to collaborate, plan, and debrief. Since we both attended the Big History Project June Training in Ann Arbor (which was one of the best teacher learning experiences we have ever experienced!),  we were able to better learn about the course, the advantages and challenges of teaching it to high school seniors, and start our work together. At that point, we had thought we would collaborate in the course creation and development, but not team teach it. Unfortunately, due to student enrolment and staffing issues outside of our control, the O' Bryant came to decide to offer only one section—instead of two sections that would have been taught by each of us. Based on union policy and administrative decisions, the course was to become officially Fred's course. Since it was to be offered at a time when Jim was not otherwise teaching, it was agreed that he could voluntarily agree to team teach with Fred, as long as it was explicitly clear to students, parents, and union representatives that this was his choice and that he was not to assess the students. Not only has that been easy for both of us to do so, administrators at the school and in the city and the Boston Teachers' Union (for whom we did a presentation last June) have come to embrace our work as a model of what all teachers should be teaching and we will be highlighted as a collaborative model when New England Association of Schools and Colleges (or NEASC) will re-evaluate the O'Bryant for re-accreditation this coming fall.4  Furthermore, it has led to Jim's involvement in another collaborative—not team teaching—course, an Advanced Placement Seminar, with another science teacher!5

     In the summer of 2013 both of us went to a second training session in Boston. This   helped us provide the Big History Project with a course plan by early-August, and enabled us to easily prepare plan for the entire year,  though in some respects we both had the feeling to that we were a week ahead of the students! The superb web site that the Big History Project offered and our support of each other assisted us greatly to get past those feelings. Since the first few months of the course is  more science-oriented, Fred took the lead in terms of content and we conferred about pedagogy.  We balanced the project-based nature of the course with our own expertise in terms of methods: projects, debates, Socratic seminars, class discussion, and readings. We were also able to supplement the materials on the web site—which targeted at ninth or tenth graders—with more challenging materials from our respective disciplines. While most teachers offer the course at the ninth grade level, the breadth and depth of the material easily allows it to be tailored to different grade levels and to different teaching styles and learning objectives. As a senior level course, we both believe that the course is well suited for students who already have a background in a multiple disciplines—from algebra, chemistry, physics, as well as history and government—so that students do not need to spend as much time on the skills that their ninth grade counterparts are learning, but can focus exclusively on the fascinating open-ended questions that the course poses.

     As one student remarked last spring: "The Big History course is a culmination of almost all courses that we have taken: we use aspects of English, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, and Civics. The dynamic between two teachers makes it so that if one teacher doesn't know an answer, the other will.  I feel that the Big History Project should be available in other schools." Another student opined: "The Big History Project is one of the most important classes that I have taken. It mixes science and history so the class literally has something for everyone. I'm interested in astronomy, for instance, and Big History can always keep me interested. It is a class that tells the story of where we came from. It answers the big questions about life and enables students to think outside the box and broaden their thinking about some of the typically unanswered questions. Having two teachers—one who is a science teacher and the other a history teacher—benefits the class allows the information of each discipline to interact, which again broadens our understanding of both history and science." The year culminated with our sharing of our collaborative work for a workshop at the Boston Teachers' Union [See Addendum]

     Over the past summer, a number of things happened to assist us in re-thinking the course: Big History revamped its site.  Fred attended one training session in Boston, and Jim attended the annual meeting of the International Big History Association in San Rafael, California.6 Interestingly, all of those developments coalesced in the meeting of the minds: that we needed to make the course more philosophical in nature and follow the lead of those who teach the course in the Dominican University in San Rafael, California,  to teach not only through a science perspective (or lens) and a historical or social science lenses; rather what holds the course together is a way of thinking, as well as philosophical questions and artistic renditions that are raised in a number of recently published books.7 It was interesting that both of us easily came to the same point independent of one another!

     Additionally, we were able to reflect on what went well over the first year, as well as the challenges that we face as team teachers. Our respective content knowledge, our awareness as to where to find supplementary materials to enrich the course, and our responsiveness to students' needs and integration of their diverse learning styles are our obvious strengths. As veteran teachers and resourceful educators in our respective fields, each of us is always looking for new materials so this aspect of our collaboration has been exhilarating and exciting. Our willingness to supplement and complement our teaching and personal styles has been another enormous strength. We each approach teaching somewhat differently: Fred is both a dynamic lecturer and a superb organizer of interactive projects, while Jim tends to focus on debates, discussions based on various primary source analysis, and Socratic seminars. Since we plan each lesson as part of a larger unit, part of the challenge for both of us is adapt when necessary or when one us thinks that we should do so, even in the middle of a class!

     We each perceive the others' strength as a challenge: for Fred's teaching approach and style, Jim rushes too much, and for Jim's approach, Fred digresses too much. Increasingly, as we are both cognizant of working with a colleague—whom we greatly respect and with whom we are friends—we realize that honesty and direct conversation about these issues are what we need to incorporate for ourselves and as a model for students. Generally, one of us is more in "charge" that day; whoever that one is, the other will ask the other—in front of students—whether he has something to add or contribute; that is we check in with the other. By doing so in front of students, they learn—along with each of us—the joys and challenges of collaborative teaching, which in turn assists them work on one of the essential skills needed for 21st century students, which is working with others and solving differences of opinion in productive ways, not necessarily where everyone come to agree with one another through consensus or compromise; rather where participants listen to one another, accept as quickly as possible (which may be in less than a minute!), and figure out makes sense in that moment and why to do it that way. 8 Some days both of, or at least one of us, exhibits this crucial skill perfectly, other times less well. Regardless of whether it works, we have committed to working together.

     In each unit our knowledge of additional sources and complementary approaches has enhanced the course. In Unit 2, Fred added a few web sites so that students could browse the sites, choose and create a gallery of favourite images in each of the following 6 categories: nebulae, massive star, star field, white dwarf, variable star, and protoplanetary disk. They included (NASA website dedicated to the Hubble Space Telescope), (run by the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard University), and (a virtual telescope on the Internet). Jim added primary sources to supplement the materials on the web site that were more appropriate for the reading level for seniors: on Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Galileo, Brahe, Hubble, Leavitt and others for a debate. In Unit 3, Fred introduced our students to Henry Rutherford's gold foil experiment and the nature of uncertainty in scientific investigations using a dropped marble experiment. In Unit 4, Fred added two lab activities to illustrate the theory of plate tectonics and geological time scale. In the first activity students use graham crackers, syrup, Styrofoam, and wax paper to show the convergence of plates and their roles in the Earth. In the second one, Lab: Making a Geologic Time Scale, was employed during which use tape on the floor to illustrate different eras of the Earth. In Unit 5, Fred expounded on the nature of life and what distinguishes living from non-living things by having our students observe the characteristics of dry and activated baker's yeast. He also added a lab activity on cladistics and cladograms, wherein students used different size nails and/or screws to categorize objects to illustrate the evolution of organisms.

     In order to enhance the work in Unit 6, Jim added work on cave paintings: so that the first class revolved first around a dynamic analysis of what students saw in each of the 10 images, what they thought it meant for the societies of which they were a part, and similarities and differences among the images. We then adapted an activity so that made their own: In Unit 7, Jim added materials from the different civilizations, as well as an excerpt from Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, The Itch to Civilize: Civilizations and Civilizations in Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature, so that students can more deeply engage with definitions of civilizations that those offered on the website. Jim also added materials from World History for Us All ( for a lively debate on the purposes of trade and exploration, as well as the effects of global exchanges.  Jim provided materials from the Choices Project: Evaluating the Impact of Economic Change: International Trade: Competition and Cooperation in a Globalized World for a role play about trade in the 21st Century.

     Since this has been our second year of collaboration, we are very conscious as to how to make it work well both for our students—who benefit from two different perspectives,  as well as teaching styles—and also for us. Using a multidisciplinary approach, the Big History curriculum has given us an avenue to provide our students a more complete understanding of our past, the present, the future, and how they are all intertwined with each other. This class has given us the opportunity to be explicit in demonstrating to our students the interconnected nature of knowledge, as well as the ability for us to adapt to each other and our students.  We hope that we are providing our students an exemplar as to how effective collaboration between professionals work in real-life.


Teaching Big History:

An Opportunity for Interdisciplinary and Collaborative Teaching and Learning

BTU Professional Learning Conference

June 17, 2014

Jim Diskant and Fred Pontillas

John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science

     We plan to share with you our work in co-teaching Big History, a course supported by a superb resource: This workshop provide a course overview, demonstrates two activities, shows student work, and engages participants in a dialogue about the merits and challenges of interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching.


I. Introductions and Purpose of Workshop: 5 minutes

II. Overview of the Course: 2 short videos, and Discussion: 10 minutes

● David Christian, a historian who helped design the course, The Big History

● Bill Gates, the supporter of the web site, One Student of the Big History

III. Activity One: Big History on a Footfield Field from Unit 1 (see Big History course Project Addendum A, pp. 3 -5): 15 minutes

IV. Activity Two:  Ad Hoc Debate from Unit 8 (see Addendum B, p. 6): 5 minutes

V. Sharing Student Work: A Newscast: Project Based Learning: What is the Next Threshold? from Unit 10 (see Addendum C, pp. 7 - 15) : 15 minutes

VI. Conversation about merits and challenges of interdisciplinary and collaborative learning: 20 minutes

Additional Information

     While most teachers offer this course at the ninth grade level, the breadth and depth of the material easily allows it to be tailored to different grade levels. We decided to offer it as a senior capstone course, since it is well suited for students who already have a basis in a variety of disciplines—from algebra, chemistry, physics, as well as history and government so that student do not need to spend as much time on the skills that their ninth grade counterparts are learning, but can focus exclusively on the fascinating open-ended questions that the course poses. The course uses the inquiry model, supported by well-developed online resources and investigates 10 units: What is Big History?, The Big Bang, Stars and Elements, Our Solar System and Earth, Life, Early Humans, Agriculture and Civilization, Expansion and Interconnection, Acceleration, and The Future. Each unit revolves an essential question, which will enable students to better understand the connections that have previously existed and to work on answering unanswerable questions about our place in the universe. The course includes a variety of teaching and learning approaches: lectures, readings, discussions, experiments, projects, and presentations. It concludes with a Little Big History Project in which students investigate an object over time.  See for a spotlight about the course in the Boston Public Schools' Department of History and Social Studies' web page.

About the Authors

James A. Diskant (Jim) has a doctorate in German history and has been teaching history at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science since 2001, where he currently teaches the 10th grade United States and World History required history course, AP United States Government and Politics, and Big History, and advises the Model United Nations Club. Jim is an active participant in regional, national, and international conferences, including the World History Association's Annual Meeting, among others.

Ulpiano Frederick A. Pontillas (Fred) attended graduate school in zoology and studied the molecular population genetics and conservation of the Philippine crocodile. He has been teaching science at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science since 2009, where he currently teaches AP Biology, AP Environmental Science, and Big History and co-advises the Recycling Club. Fred is a member of the National Science Teachers' Association and presents at the organization's national conference.


1 Numerous scholars write about the importance of teacher collaboration for enhanced student engagement: a few titles: Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don't Students Like Schools? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2009), in particular, pp. 97 ff; Linda F. Nathan, The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test: Lessons from An Innovative Urban School (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009), pp. 83ff;  Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010); Deborah Meier, In Schools We Trust:Creating Communities of Learning In An Era of Testing and Standardization (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002); and Theodore Sizer, Horace's Hope: What Works for the American High School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

2 The Common Core: State Standards Initiative Preparing America's Students for College and Career (see implies the importance of collaboration for student learning, while the new AP Capstone Program courses: AP Seminar and AP Research courses (see explicitly states its importance.

3 See Big History Website:

4 See

5 Jim attended the training for the new AP Seminar course this past August in Spokane Washington, along with a science teacher at the O'Bryant. She currently teaches that course; Jim will teach its sequel: AP Research.

6 See

7 See and in particular: Richard B. Simon, Mojgan Behmand, and Thomas Burke, Teaching Big History (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014). Also see David Christopher, The Holy Universe: A New Story of Creation For the Heart, Soul, and Spirit (Santa Rose, CA; New Story Press, 2014), and Betty-Ann Kissilove, Great Ball of Fire! A Poetic Telling of the Universe Story (Santa Margaria, California, 2014).

8 Again the literature is vast on 21st century skills: see for example The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (see and The Glossary of Education Reform for Journalists, Parents, and Community Members (see

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