Image: Ted Ed

What makes an idea, a BIG idea? As educators we are surrounded by ideas. It is our responsibility to carefully select and combine ideas which serve as the foundations for meaningful learning experiences for our students: the Big Ideas. It is essential that these ideas are situated: Meaningful learning experiences are situated in familiar culture and context, respect and employ the prior knowledge and experience of each learner, are scaffolded accordingly, and incorporate community expertise and resources while fostering participatory, citizen science action research (Avery, 2013; Ballard et al. 2017).

According to Wiggins & McTighe (2004), BIG ideas provide a “conceptual lens for prioritizing content”. Therefore, we generate and utilize Big Ideas as the foundational experience for instruction, understanding and assessment (Wiggins & McTighe, 2004).

Big Ideas reflect exert understanding and anchor the discourse, inquiries, discoveries, and arguments in a field of study. They provide a basis for setting curriculum priorities to focus on the most meaningful content” (MOBAP).

While as educators we assume the “behind the scenes” responsibility in creating learning experiences that anchor student learning in Big Ideas it is essential that we collaborate with our fellow educators, our students, and our communities when doing so. According to the constructivist theory: learners “do not passively absorb information, but rather, meaningful learning involves the active creation and modification of knowledge structures” (Palmer, 2005, p. 1854). When we invite individuals with various perspectives in the construction process we ensure that the Big Ideas we select allow for various entry points for learning and involvement, broadening our students learning community beyond the walls of the school building, while encouraging students to take on challenges within their own communities! For example, in the context of the Genesee River (Rochester, NY) we can ask the question: How does water influence weather, circulate in the oceans, and shape Earth’s surface? Within the question lies room for various entry points of study: geological time, weathering and erosion, pollution, the development of industry along a waterway, environmental impact…

As we begin to shift away form traditional teaching methods toward inquiry driven approaches we must expand our own understanding of teaching and learning. Where to begin? Check out Wilmes & Howarth (2009) Using Issues-based science in the classroom

“Every day we are confronted with issues of varying degrees of complexity and importance…Questions such as these present unique opportunities to incorporate personal, societal, and global issues into the science classroom. Issues-based science not only helps increase student engagement, but also provides a context in which to learn and apply core science content. In addition, students evaluate scientific evidence, apply reasoning, examine positions, and weigh trade-offs” (Wilmes & Howarth, 2009).

Our next step is to dig deep! What “issues” can we take on in our local communities? Choosing issues that are complex, lead to ongoing questioning, and encompass interdisciplinary study invite inquisitive minds to learn through various perspectives. As a student teacher at World of Inquiry (RCSD #58) I am fortunate to have the experience of teaching and learning in an Expeditionary Learning school. This year, seventh grade students are exploring: The Riveting River! (An expedition grounded in the local Genesee River).

While students will unpack Big Ideas in each of their core content classes, interdisciplinary study will be encouraged through collaborative learning experiences and field studies. A culminating experience will provide students the opportunity to share their understanding with community members during Expedition Night, an event which allows the time and space for authentic communication and shared learning. When we ground teaching and learning in Big Ideas we facilitate ongoing inquiry, encouraging young learners to pursue learning opportunities that extend beyond the classroom!

Recently while participating in a seminar focused on Understanding by Design, facilitated by Julie Kopp, the GR!S cohort participated in a focused free write where we were asked:

What are your long-term goals for student learning in science?

The following themes emerged: Perseverance, Curiosity, Problem Solving, Scientific Literacy, Environmental Consciousness.

What are your long-term goals for student learning? Brainstorm for a few minutes and write down your thoughts! Then, watch Dr. Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills:

How do we account for Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills when selecting Big Ideas?

Here’s my working draft:

In designing innovative, authentic, and meaningful learning experiences grounded in Big Ideas which acknowledge and celebrate diversity (in regard to perspectives, experiences, and identities) it is my hope that students will: take ownership of life-long learning, express a willingness to persevere, and take on new challenges. While I acknowledge that our work together in school is building the foundation for learning, the importance lies in what each individual builds on top of the foundation.

What are your thoughts? Join the conversation in the comment section below!


A Big Idea… Information in this section was taken from the referenced pages of Understanding by Design Professional Development Workbook by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins distributed by ASCD in 2004.

Avery, L.M. (2013). Rural Science Education: Valuing Local Knowledge. Theory into Practice, 52(1): 28-35.

Ballard, H.L., Dixon, C.G.H., & Harris, E.M. (2017). Youth-focused citizen science: Examining the role of environmental science learning and agency for conservation. Biological Conservation, 208, 65-75.

Palmer. (2005). A motivational view of constructivist-informed teaching. International Journal of Science Education, 27(15): 1853-1881.

Wilmes, S. &Howarth, J. (2009). Using issues-based science in the classroom. The Science Teacher, 24-29.

Looking for new ideas? Big ideas have implication outside of curriculum development and implementation as well! Check out Ted-ED’s 24 Game-Changing Ideas from Educators to see what fellow innovative educators are doing in their classrooms!