What’s the Big Idea?

snailIn curriculum and instructional design, think of a “Big Idea” as the “big picture” of what students need to know about. What’s the main point, or what is the most important thing that students should understand years later?

Big Ideas are, themselves, timeless. How one works with an idea might change, but the idea itself remains. For example, the “Writing Process” is a big idea, but what is considered to be good writing can itself change over time or depending upon the particular scenario. Have you ever witnessed self-appointed Grammar Police argue over details such as whether a contraction should or shouldn’t be used in a sentence? Or how about starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction? No matter the current opinion regarding these details, the writer still goes through the Writing Process to craft and refine the writing to meet the purpose and audience for that particular work.

The Scientific Method is another process that can serve as a Big Idea; the specific area of science is not as important is the student’s ability to work through the process to observe, hypothesis, evaluate, and theorize about those concepts.

Some ideas are bigger than others. For example, we can take the very big ideas of the Scientific Method and Cause & Effect, and use these to study a more focused (but still big) idea of the Water Cycle. So many little details can be included for the purpose of studying the Water Cycle, and yet not all of those will be used depending upon the level and goals of the lesson. However, the students should come away from the experience having a solid – if general – idea of how that cycle works. Even with a general idea, students could later make decisions about whether or not to dump something damaging into that cycle, or be aware enough to understand that a nearby pollutant might be the cause of other problems in the cycle. Ultimately, this is the result of three Big Ideas coming together to form a meaningful learning experience.

Big Ideas are often explored through what’s called Essential Questions. These are open-ended, often evaluative, and the answers can vary depending upon the scenario. These are not a regurgitation of facts but instead require synthesizing information and experiences to be able to discuss the question.

For example, a Russian history course might ask the question, “What if the last Tsar was not removed from power; how would Russia’s more recent history since that key point have been different?” Students can analyze the behavior of the Tsar, cultural considerations, and other variables to suggest possibilities. This requires knowing several key facts, but the question does not ask just for those facts; the question is instead evaluative in nature. Just so long the student backs up a response with careful reasoning, there is not an absolute right or wrong answer.

Once upon a time, “standards” were a solution to make sure that students covered some important skills and Big Ideas along the way while engaging in project-based and authentic learning programs. An important skill or Big Idea is writing a coherent paragraph or working through the Scientific Method; it less likely to include things like identifying a gerund or memorizing the mating habits of snails. Also, “standardized testing” was not supposed to be the default method to test for those standards; instead, authentic assessment was the buzz word at the time.

The standards themselves could be very useful. How they were implemented became the problem. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. It requires a two-step fix. First, trim the standards back to their original intent; just keep the Big Ideas and key skills. Second, view the now-reasonable standards as a list of learning goals that each student should master, using whatever curriculum or instructional approach that works well for each individual student, and include these learning goals part of a larger educational program. In other words, definitely do not limit the student to those standards. A student might even want to learn all about snails!

Until we move away from standards or return to the Essential and Big Ideas, take heart in knowing that we do not have to give up on the idea of creating personalized education programs. This can still be done with minimal compromise just so long we adjust how we approach those standards. That way we can transform this aspect of education from two different angles: changing how we address standards, and ultimately changing the standards themselves.