Billionaire Bill Gates is seeking to revolutionise the way history is taught in high schools across the world, based on the work of Australian academic Professor David Christian.

He designed a course called Big History which covers nearly 14 billion years of history from the Big Bang to the internet and beyond.

It gives students a wide-angle look at the universe and humanity's presence on the cosmic timeline, by combining the sciences, history and economics into one cohesive story.

Mr Gates has been so inspired by Professor Christian's work he has proposed a partnership to expand his teachings to all Australian and US high schools and, ultimately, classrooms around the world.

The course has already transformed history lessons for Year 10 students at Sydney's Redlands High School.

"It explains a lot of the questions which are at the core of all of us about why are we here and how did it come to this," head history teacher Sarah Trotter said.

Professor Christian never thought his course would be taught in high schools.

"Seeing teachers excited by it and their students excited by it. It’s really a dream come true for me," he said.

On a recent visit to Redlands, the students called Professor Christian "The Big DC" and told him they enjoyed the course.

"It combines science and history and I really love those subjects so for me it’s really exciting," Year 10 student Audrey Burns said.

Her classmate Jasmine Cavanough said it helped her grasp the bigger picture.

"You need to have an understanding of how everything is connected because if you just learn a bit of knowledge from every subject but can't put it into a bigger framework it's not very fulfilling," she said.

Professor Christian initially specialised in Russian history but said he yearned for something greater.

"I think what I was after was a unifying story that could bring everything together, that could give me a sense of the whole of history," he said.

He initiated an undergraduate course he called Big History at Macquarie University in Sydney, despite opposition from fellow historians.

"You go to the cosmologists and ask them to tell the story of the universe, you go to the palaeontologists, you go to the geologists and ask them, you go to the biologists and ask them to tell their story, and so on," he said.

"When you string all those stories together, if you do it carefully, you get an amazing, cohesive story that’s fantastically interesting."

The course was meant to be a one-off, but a US company recorded his lectures and Bill Gates became involved.

The billionaire's office called Professor Christian out-of-the-blue to arrange a meeting.

"It's a Monday and it's a bad day. I'm grumpy and I get a phone call and I say, 'Yes, what is it?'," he said.

"It turns out that Mr Gates is a great fan."

He later met the Microsoft founder in California and the pair talked for hours about Big History's potential.

"This is my favourite course of all time," Mr Gates said.

"It put it all together, made it all make sense and in fact it made me feel bad that I hadn't seen a course like this when I was young."

Mr Gates offered to fund Professor Christian to build a free online high school syllabus of Big History, with support from IT and online history teaching experts.

Redlands teacher Sarah Trotter said it is important how climate change is addressed in the course.

"Any of the challenges which are going to face us and future generations are complicated," she said.

"This is a course that will provide students with the critical thinking skills that they will need to be active and informed citizens."

Professor Christian said the course takes students to a final threshold moment in the history of the planet.

"We, as extremely complex creatures, desperately need to know this story of how the universe creates complexity and why complexity means vulnerability and fragility," he told students.

"There are vast possibilities facing us but there are also huge challenges and they'll face your generation."

He said having a bigger picture of the world helps students get their bearings.

"All religions, all indigenous traditions, all origin stories provide a large map of where you are," Professor Christian said.

"Without that map there's a sense in which you are intellectually lost and maybe ethically lost and I fear that's the situation we are leaving students in today."

Twenty-six Australian schools are already piloting the course and more are due to take it up from next year.

 

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