Tag Archives: bbc

History For All

roman colliseum

How Earth Made Us is a documentary series produced by the BBC.  Like many BBC programs, the cinematography is spectacular.  But, perhaps more interesting, is the approach the program takes to history.  Instead of only examining human interactions, the program focuses on how natural forces such as geology, geography, and climate have shaped history.  And, the whole series is available on YouTube.

In the first episode, Water, host Iain Stewart explores the effects that extreme conditions have had on human development.  He visits the Sahara Desert, which receives less than a centimeter of rainfall each year, and Tonlé Sap, which swells to become the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia during monsoon season.  The contrast is striking.  One interesting factoid is that the world’s reservoirs now hold 10,000 cubic kilometers of water (2400 cubic miles).  Because most of these reservoirs are in the northern hemisphere, they have actually affected the earth’s rotation very slightly.

The second episode, Deep Earth, begins in a stunning crystal cave in Mexico, in which crystals have grown to several meters long.  The cave, which is five kilometers below the earth’s surface, was discovered by accident when miners broke into it.  I can’t imagine what they thought when they first set foot inside.

The third episode, Wind, explores the tradewinds which spread trade and colonization, which lead to the beginning of globalization.  This brought fortune to some who exploited resources and tragedy to others who were enslaved.  The view from the doorway through which thousands of Africans passed on their way to the Americas is a chilling reminder of this period of history.

Fire, the fourth episode, moves from cultures that held the flame as sacred, to the role of carbon in everything from plants to diamonds to flames.  And carbon is also the basis of petroleum, which has powered the growth of humankind.  Several methods of extracting crude oil around the world are explored.

The final episode, Human Planet, turns the equation around tying the first four episodes together by looking at how humans have had an impact on the earth. One of the most compelling examples is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is the result of ocean currents bringing plastic and other debris from countries around the Pacific rim.  This garbage collects, is broken down by the sun, and eventually settles to the bottom to become part of the earth’s crust.  This is juxtaposed to rock strata in the Grand Canyon, pointing out that eventually, one layer of rock under the garbage patch in the Pacific will be made up of this debris.

In all, there is almost 5 hours of documentary video here.  It is a compelling production with spectacular imagery.  There are any number of ways to use these videos with an ESL class.  And because they are available on YouTube, there are even more options available to an ESL instructor.  Instead of everyone watching together in the classroom, the videos can be posted in an online content management system and students can watch them anywhere, anytime on their laptops and smartphones, if they have access to that kind of technology.  And if the videos are being watched outside of the classroom, there are more options for assigning different groups of students to watch different videos and then have conversations with students who watched different episodes.  The ubiquity of online video can bring learning to students outside of the classroom.

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The Good Old Days

meccano close-up

My four-year-old and I have been regularly tuning in to James May’s Toy Stories on BBC America.  Truth be told, I watched all of the episodes myself and now we have been watching the reruns together.  She loves Thomas the Train so we started with the episode on model trains and have since made it a weekly ritual.

Each week, James May, of Top Gear fame, takes a different toy that was popular before the advent of video games and reintroduces it to the British public through a large scale stunt.  Examples include building a full-scale house out of Lego, a 3-mile-long slot-car track following one of Britain’s first racetracks, and a 10-mile-long model train track following an old seaside rail route.

A Meccano bridge.

A bridge made of Meccano.

Most recently, we watched the episode on Meccano, a toy construction set made of metal strips, nuts and bolts, and assorted gears.  I had a set as a kid and it was a real challenge.  To be honest, I was more into Lego, but later became much more interested in Meccano-like nuts and bolts.

One of the Meccano aficionados that May talks to points out several reasons that the toy is no longer as popular as it was around the world wars when, perhaps not coincidentally, the world looked much more like Meccano.  I have paraphrased them, if not quoted them directly, below:

  • Mecanno is metal.  Today’s medium is plastic.
  • Mecanno is angular.  Today’s things are compound curves.
  • You can repair it by changing out one of the bits.  Today we replace whole units, which are designed to be disposable.
  • He concludes, “It is out of kilter with modern life.”

As an educator who likes to adapt technology to my needs and the needs of my students, I am a bit discouraged by the fact that most technology has evolved along these lines.  Not long ago, machines and even computers were designed so that the user could repair them if necessary.  Now things are designed so that they are easy to use, but we are discouraged from “looking under the hood.”  Even computer games, programmed by the user a generation ago, are now typically very difficult to adapt and modify.

What are we losing by not tinkering with things and learning how to repair them ourselves?  What are the implications for our students if we tell them, “Just use it, don’t worry about how it works?”

May crossing the Meccano bridge.

May crossing the Meccano bridge.

One of the saddest parts of the Meccano episode, at least to me, was when May visits the new Meccano factory to reveal how their new toys incorporate remote-controlled cars and robots to which Meccano pieces can be attached.  In fact, one of the Meccano designers argues that today’s kids need to have simpler toys.

Clearly, I’m a person who likes to make things.  I’m not saying everyone should make their own houses, cars, and food (though I like to).  But by conceding that we can not or should not, what are we losing?  And by relaying this message to our children and our students, in what ways are we limiting them and their curiosity?

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