Is this the right work?

From the start of our discussion on Big Ideas I have promised to address two items that question whether the way we use big ideas in our art curriculum is the right way. 

  • Does the theme/big idea really belong in the curriculum ?
  • Is it appropriate that themes be predetermined?

Albert_After Sandy

After Sandy by Rachel Albert, art teacher

The first question is really about the way we think of curriculum in the current standards-based, data-driven education environment. Standards are supposed to define learning that should be achieved (and measured) in a given course. When I ask, “Does the theme/big idea really belong in the curriculum?” I really mean to ask, “Is the big idea really the learning that is the expected outcome of the art course?”

Our local curriculum, much more than state or national standards, is packed full of specific art knowledge and skills that we expect our students to learn. At the end of the day — or more to the point, at the end of the course — is it really important that students understand the big idea to a certain degree, or is it more important that the students have met the expectations in the specific art knowledge and skills outlined in the program of studies?

If we favor learning of the art content over specific big idea learning, then perhaps big ideas are really just a teaching strategy. I hope, even in my efforts to do so briefly, that I have made the case for why we should teach with big ideas, but if this is really about HOW we teach, maybe it’s not so much WHAT we teach. That would suggest that maybe it does not belong in the program of studies — the curriculum document that defines what is taught in each course.

The obvious presence of big ideas in the program of studies has served a very important purpose, however. Putting it there is how our district was able to affect change in the delivery of our art program. The teacher’s responsibilities include teaching the content in the program of studies, so what is in that document becomes their job. If it were only presented as a teaching strategy, it would have been much easier for a teacher to dismiss, and we would not have been able to move to this effective instructional model.

So what of the second question? Should course themes be predetermined or should teachers have the flexibility to identify themes for themselves and their students? As long as big ideas are being used appropriately to deliver instruction, does it really matter whether the predetermined big idea for the course is the one used? Transformation, for example, is the theme for seventh grade art foundations. Would it really be a problem if a seventh grade art teacher decided, instead, that her students were going to explore the relationship between humans and nature?

It may surprise some of the teachers I work with to hear that I do NOT think it matters. If a developmentally appropriate theme is used to unify the instruction, make connections for students, and provide a foundation for them to communicate relevant and meaningful ideas through art — that’s all that matters.

One benefit of using the predetermined themes is to ensure some consistency across the district. It’s nice to know that a high school Art 1 student could move from one school to another and find that their new art class is exploring the same concepts. The big ideas identified in the curriculum documents also ensure that themes are developmentally appropriate, and takes the burden of selecting and developing a theme off the shoulders of the teachers.

So there you have it. Big ideas are a big topic, and there is a lot to consider. If you teach with big ideas, or want to give it a try, come back to these as often as you need.

Big Idea 1, Big Idea 2, Big Idea 3, Big Idea 4

And please, ask questions.

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5 thoughts on “Is this the right work?”

  1. I am relieved that you said that you DO NOT think it matters if the theme is not the same as the big ideas. Often a lot of time, I had to “tweak” the BIG IDEA to what’s more personal to the students. (For example: Fifth graders “Globalization” is a very broad idea and could be really hard for the 11-year-old told wrap their head around.) Thanks!

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