It’s one of those buzz words in education: BIG IDEAS. And we need to talk about it. Why? Because big ideas can be anything from a bit of jargon someone uses to try to land a job, to an incredibly powerful instructional strategy.
Chicklet Behind the Wheel by Joni Dim, Art Teacher
Let me ‘fess up and tell you why this is so important to me. The art curriculum in my school district (the program for which I am responsible) has a broad theme, or big idea identified for each grade level/course. The idea is that for the duration of the course, students create artworks that explore the designated theme in a variety of ways. At first, this approach may seem prescriptive, but it is a powerful element of our curriculum… when used correctly.
In addition to “big idea,” there are a number of terms in education (and terms I shall use) that refer to similar or related concepts: enduring idea, conceptual foundation, and theme to name just a few. While these can, occasionally, refer to rather different practices, they can as easily be used interchangeably.
Frankly, that can be part of the problem. A teacher — or a teacher candidate, as I suggest above — can go around saying, “I use big ideas,” and you don’t have any clue what they mean until you see it in practice. I try to keep this in mind for those occasions (like this week) when we are preparing newly hired art teachers for the start of the school year. When we say “big ideas” it may mean different things to each of them.
One of my goals with this topic, then, is to clarify what we mean by “teaching with big ideas” and to share why and how we do this. There are a number of other concerns around this topic as well, so I am going to address them in a multiple part series. This introduction is the first, which I will follow with discussions around each of these questions.
- What kinds of concepts are used for course themes?
- How are the themes/big ideas used in instruction?
- What are the benefits of teaching with big ideas in this way?
- Does the theme/big idea really belong in the curriculum or is this really just an instructional strategy?
- Is it appropriate that themes be predetermined or should teachers have the flexibility to identify themes for themselves and their students?
Through these discussions, I will share proven methods and some examples of big ideas in action. I will provide some great reasons for using this approach, and I might even apply some critical thinking to question some of the practices that are promoted in my school district… Promoted by who, you ask? (That might be me.) So stick with me, this should be fun. And ask questions if you got ’em.