So, What Is a Big Idea?

This is part 2 of the Big Idea series. The first question I told you we would explore in this series is: What kinds of concepts are used for course themes?

As I explained in the introduction, the art curriculum in my school district has a broad theme, or big idea identified for each grade level/course. Students are expected to explore different aspects of the designated theme throughout the course, so this theme has a significant bearing on the course content. Not everything that could be referred to as a big idea would be appropriate in this context. So, what kinds of ideas or concepts are appropriate to this method?

TeaTime by Donna Sinclair

Tea Time by Donna Sinclair, Art Teacher

I have had the opportunity (often through art teacher screening interviews) to hear about a variety of ways that teachers and teacher preparation programs think about “the big idea.” Not all of them would be appropriate within the instructional model I am describing. I don’t mean to judge “other” ways of thinking about the big idea as wrong, but rather to clarify the type of big idea that is appropriate for use as a course theme.

There are four categories that capture the ways I have heard the term “big idea” used. As I try to distinguish these, they may seem like points on a continuum, but even that will serve our purposes. I will provide examples to help illustrate the distinctions.

  • An instructional focus
  • An essential question
  • A conceptual understanding
  • A broad, important human issue or concern

By the first definition, an instructional focus, I am referring to the knowledge or skills taught in the lesson.

“The big idea of this lesson is capturing motion in figure drawing.”

This may be a legitimate skill to develop in your students, but this is a far too narrow way of thinking about the big idea to be considered as a theme for a course.

Essential questions will often be less specific than the previous example, but are still tightly related to the content of the lesson. An example might be:

“In what ways might an artist represent movement?”

At first glance, this may seem very similar to the instructional focus example, but in the  first case the teacher might teach just one or two specific ways of capturing motion. The essential question, at least, opens the realm of possibilities and invites students to explore the range of possibilities, perhaps through research or experimentation.

Next is the conceptual understanding. Essential questions are a great way to encourage students to develop conceptual understandings, but a conceptual understanding is broader so that it requires a number of essential questions to help students explore it fully. Following my chain of examples, then, the conceptual understanding might be:

 “Artists choose ways of representing subject matter to communicate their ideas.”

This concept could certainly be explored multiple times, and throughout a course, but it lacks some very important elements that a good theme must have. This example is both extremely broad, referencing all manner of representing any and all subject matter in any art form, and at the same time very narrow, it is only about representing subject matter, which is only one of many considerations any artist or art student must consider when creating an artwork. (See Art Pacing Guides for more on that.)

The final definition, and the one that does work as a course theme is the broad, important human issue or concern. This definition is based heavily on the work of Sydney Walker in Teaching Meaning in Artmaking, from the Art Education in Practice Series. I encourage you to check out this book, and the series if you want to learn more. Let’s look at an example and then discuss why we use this understanding of a big idea in our curriculum. Continuing with our related examples from the top, an example might be:


Yep. That’s it. Just time.

One of the first things I want to note about this example is that it is not about ART. Time is not an art concept. Its a HUMAN concept that impacts our lives and the way we think and live. THAT’s a big idea! Big ideas are not art ideas.

Because we are identifying a theme to be addressed repeatedly over the duration of a course, concepts must be sufficiently broad to address in a variety of ways. Students in a course based on the theme of Time might, indeed, explore ways artists represent motion (like our examples above), but they may also explore:

  • The passage of time
  • Sequencing of events
  • How the past influences the present
  • How decisions impact the future
  • Legacy
  • Perceptions of time
  • Time travel
  • Ways of measuring time
  • Age
  • Mortality vs. Immortality
  • Time in memory
  • Etc.

In each instance, the student has opportunity to engage in the creative process to generate ideas, plan, and create an artwork that is personally meaningful and relevant. At the same time, they could explore concepts of time in other courses such as social studies, science, and language arts. Finding these connections strengthens and reinforces learning.

We will have opportunity to explore more examples as we go through this series, but let me share a few other big ideas that meet this definitiion of a broad, important human issue or concern. Consider Community, Identity, Transformation, Relationships, and A Sense of Place. What are some of the different ways you could explore each of these? Do they meet the criteria?

Next, we are going to take a look at how themes/big ideas are used in instruction. Later we will address these questions:

If you have others, let me know.

Previous post in this series: Big Idea 1

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