Big Ideas for Instruction

Now that we’re clear on what I mean when I say “Big Idea” (See Big Idea 1 and Big Idea 2) let’s discuss how they are used for instruction. I won’t pretend that this is done consistently across my district, but there is a model promoted to the teachers through curriculum, resources, and professional development.

Pathways and Portals by Jean-Marie Galing

Pathways and Portals by Jean-Marie Galing, art teacher

Ideally, teachers introduce the theme at the beginning of the course and give students an opportunity to explore the range of concepts related to it through brainstorming or other exploratory activities. Then for the duration of the course, each art lesson or unit is based on some key concept of the theme. The key concept is the foundation for meaning-making. This is key! So let me pause…

The fundamental philosophy of art education in our curriculum is that ART IS ABOUT MAKING MEANING.

While this is obvious to some, and easy to embrace by others, some teachers who hold a different philosophy or who have taught, perhaps for decades, from a different foundation have a more difficult time understanding and applying the model I am describing. Where are you on that continuum? Do you need some scaffolding? I’m willing to differentiate…

Before that brief aside, this is what I was saying:

Each art lesson or unit is based on a key concept (some aspect of the big idea) as the foundation for meaning-making.

Let’s all agree that the art lesson will involve artmaking. Are we good with that? Any arguments? No? Ok. If the students are going to be asked to create an artwork I believe it’s very important for the art teacher to state clearly what the students are asked to create. That statement is what I call the artmaking challenge.

When a lesson/unit is based on a big idea, the artmaking challenge will include the connection to the big idea.

Let’s take a quiz: Which artmaking challenge includes a connection to a big idea?

  1. Apply facial proportions to create a self portrait drawing.
  2. Represent a community helper in a cut paper collage.
  3. Create your very own Starry Night just like Vincent van Gogh.

(Bonus question: Which of these should never, ever, never, EVER happen in an art classroom?)

But let’s not dwell on the bonus question today. For the original question, I hope you picked #2. Representing the helpers in your community is one of many ways to explore the idea of community (this is our grade 2 art theme).

Including the connection to the big idea by explaining what ideas students will communicate in their artwork is the foundation of teaching with the big idea. Everything else in the lesson is based on this.

All content and skills taught as part of the lesson should be with the strict purpose of providing the student what they need to communicate meaning in their artwork successfully.

This means, if I am going to provide instruction about paper collage techniques to my second graders, I only do this after they know the artmaking challenge. I teach the techniques so the students will be able to communicate their ideas about community helpers successfully. In the teacher’s mind, this is true whether it is taught before or after the artmaking challenge is given, but what’s important here is not what is in the teacher’s mind, it’s what’s in the student’s mind.

If a student doesn’t know why they are practicing a skill, they are less likely to learn it and retain it.

This is what I mean by, “All content and skills taught as part of the lesson should be with the strict purpose of providing the student what they need to communicate the meaning in their artwork successfully.” You should also draw from this statement that the meaning that is communicated through the artwork should be of the student’s choosing within the parameters of the assignment. The example is not to represent a fireman because they are a community helper. It is to represent a community helper.

Students must have the opportunity to explore a range of possible solutions to the artmaking challenge. They may read books, participate in class discussions, or engage in small group activities to do this. Then students must select, for themselves, the solution they will pursue in their artwork. This process serves at least two purposes: to teach aspects of the creative/design process, and to ensure that students create artworks that are relevant to their own experience.

But now I’m getting into the advantages of teaching with this model, and that is supposed to our topic for next time. Aften that, we will wrap things up with a couple of challenging questions: Does the theme/big idea really belong in the curriculum or is this really just an instructional strategy? And, is it appropriate that themes be predetermined or should teachers have the flexibility to identify themes for themselves and their students?

Big Idea Series:

Big Idea 1, Big Idea 2… Big Idea 4Big Idea 5

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