According to Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998), a “big idea” is a “concise statement, principle, or generalization that promotes in-depth understanding, and emphasizes the common characteristics of a unifying concept”. I like to think of it as the idea that lies at the core of a subject and guides my thinking about it.

For my innovative unit, I will be kicking off the first few weeks of ecology. I believe that the big idea for this unit is “Living things in an environment are all connected and depend on each other to create a balanced system”. Ecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their environments: predator-prey interactions, mutualism, commensalism, parasitism, allelopathy, territorial interactions, etc. etc. These interactions, whether positive or negative, work to keep a balance in their ecosystem. When this system is disrupted, species can go extinct or be driven to near extinction.

This big idea has a lot of explanatory power for the entire unit but also leaves room for lots of exploration and has many entry points. Students can interact with that idea through many different phenomenon. For a truly in depth look at “the big idea” (and examples) check out James’ post.

As for accessing this big idea, I am thinking of students creating their own balanced ecosystem because students first have to understand how an ecosystem works before they can apply their knowledge to specific problems. I have seen part of an abbreviated version of this used before and it creates some great high level conversations among students. However, I would really like to connect this to something more specific to their own lives. Therefore, I may ask them to research an area around Rochester or another home specific to their lives instead of creating their own.

Here lies the rub: I’ve started to learn more about my students. A lot of them have shown more interest in far-off, exotic places than their own local area in the projects we’ve done so far. They may be more interested and invested if they get to create their own based on an area of their choice. I also have limited time. I won’t be present for the last half of the unit, a point during which they will learn a lot of the content necessary to really research disturbances in local ecosystems. So what shall I do? Do I do the model ecosystem to start them off, then hand off the baton to my CT to continue into problems of local areas? Do I start the project with local problems and just have my CT continue it? Or do I pick entirely different phenomena entirely? I eagerly await suggestions from my readers on this.


Reference: Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VirginiaASCD.