Why Teach with Big Ideas?

So what have we covered so far?

There’s this great concept called a big idea, but the words “big idea” can be interpreted in different ways. At least one of those ways lends itself so well to art instruction that one of the ten largest school systems in the country uses big ideas as a conceptual foundation for their art courses, from kindergarten through grade twelve. These themes are the basis for making meaning in art and are built into every artmaking challenge.



Despondent by Michael Corigliano, art teacher

Does that sum it up thus far? But Why? What are the benefits of teaching with big ideas in this way? Let’s get right to a big one, shall we?

The human brain learns by making connections. Conceptual themes make connections for students.

Big ideas that are significant human concerns (not just art ideas) link art instruction with prior knowledge, personal experience, classroom curriculum, previous art lessons, and the world that we live in. Finding these connections — linking new knowledge with things we already understand — is how we learn. Have I told you about learning to talk?

Using conceptual ideas as a foundation for instruction challenges students to think at higher levels.

H. Lynn Erickson calls this a 3D curriculum. The two dimensions of a “flat” curriculum are the knowledge and skills. The idea is the third dimension that makes the learning richer and deeper.

In an art lesson, students might learn about artists who create imagery with text, and practice this as well as portraiture skills. These could be combine, as is, to make an art assignment, but including a meaningful concept, such as bullying in the school community, would make this a deeply meaningful artmaking experience.

Students develop critical and creative thinking skills when they are challenged to communicate meaning related to concepts.

Twenty-first century education values critical and creative thinking skills. Teaching the steps of artmaking and asking students to duplicate those steps does not challenge students to think. When students are asked to respond to a big idea through an artmaking challenge, however, they must apply these higher order thinking skills to come up with a solution. These skills aren’t only about solving art challenges. They are applied in any situation where a problem must be solved.

A designated theme for a course provides necessary limits to artmaking.

Think about a lesson and ask yourself, “How do I help students select the subject/content for their artwork?” Is the answer too tight — Did you solve the challenge for the students and tell them what to create? Is the answer too loose — Do you let the students figure out what they want their artwork to be about from an infinite realm of possibilities? Or is it just right — Does your lesson provide some limitations and sufficient flexibility for student choice to allow for a range of solutions? Too broad a range of possibility is overwhelming to students, and solving the problem for them doesn’t teach problem solving skills. We should do, in our classrooms, what artists do for themselves — establish limits to work within. For more on limitations, check out Embrace the Shake.

Big ideas provide relevance and opportunities for personal meaning making in art.

Every art teacher has students who don’t really want to be in art, or who lack confidence to be successful with technical skills. Big ideas gives those students an opportunity to engage in activities they are passionate about and allows them to be successful. Even when their technical skills are not perfect, they can still express ideas through their artwork that are meaningful and relevant to their own experience.

Art instruction centered around big ideas encourages students to explore real, meaningful ideas that have real world application. This makes the learning more authentic, and demonstrates that what students are learning and doing in art applies to the broader world. The question is not, “Why use big ideas?” but rather, “Why would we deliver instruction without them?”

Big Idea Series:

Big Idea 1, Big Idea 2, Big Idea 3Big Idea 5

6 thoughts on “Why Teach with Big Ideas?”

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