Hey! What’s the Big Idea?

What are you trying to teach here?  While some of my students undoubtedly have thought this from time to time, I’m the one who really needs to ask and answer these questions.  Just exactly what am I trying to teach?  If I could distill all the possible topics to cover in each course, which ones are non-negotiable?  What are the “big ideas?”

The approach to instruction I’m taking this fall hinges on my ability to identify the big ideas in my courses and to explore each of them from the top down by starting with big questions.  This question-driven approach comes from Jim Burke’s book, What’s the Big Idea?  It was written primarily for English teachers, but it’s appropriate for science classes as well.  And, heck, I’m no stranger to stealing ideas, especially good ones!light bulb idea

I started with my biology and physical science classes, generally following Next Generation Science Standards, and I created sequence guides that make sense to me.  I’ve relied on district pacing guides and textbook sequences to determine the flow of topics in the past, but several circumstances make it necessary now to rethink structure and sequence.

First, Common Core State Standards have been adopted by my state, and I’ve been working on restructuring my junior English class to satisfy those standards.  I feel the new standards give me greater freedom in selecting reading material from a broader range of sources.  I can also structure lessons around current events or situations that are relevant to students’ lives.  For instance, we spent a week this spring reading, understanding, and preparing students to take the state driver’s exam.  I also subscribe to the (free!) replica edition of The New York Times in School online—a great deal for instructors!!  Since I teach both newspaper and English, I have made good use of this resource already.

Next, I was part of an Oklahoma Writing Team to draft new state science standards, based on the Next Generation Science Standards.  That work is ongoing, but after being immersed in the standards texts this spring with a group of other educators, I have a much better understanding of what I really need to cover in my science classes.  Physical science and biology each include 24 big ideas (or standards), with supporting information about how to structure lessons.

Finally, I learned recently that science textbook adoption in Oklahoma, which was scheduled for this year, will be postponed until next year when science standards are finalized.  That’s a big deal in science; new discoveries or research studies could fill volumes every year.  My textbooks are already seven years old.  While I’ve always incorporated activities and lessons that focus on cutting-edge science ideas, our text has still been a dependable resource.  This year, our texts will spend more time holding down the bookshelf or flattening curled poster presentations.  The science journals I subscribe to will probably outnumber texts by year’s end, and that’s as it should be.  I’m not sure what texts we’ll end up evaluating next year, but they’ll need to be more flexible, interactive, and multi-faceted.  I hope they’ll include a weekly or monthly “journal” of updates, available in print and online.

think cloudIn the meantime, I’m working to create a framework for lessons that flows directly from big ideas, beginning with a big question.  A biology unit on inheritance of traits may begin with a question like this:  “Can you have blue eyes if both your parents have brown eyes?”  In English, questions surrounding the reading of Night by Elie Wiesel might include, “How do extreme situations lead people to take actions they would never take under ordinary circumstances?”  Or physical science students might be asked, “When dropped from the roof, which will hit the ground first: a feather or an apple?”  The point is to engage students with questions that will pique their curiosity and guide their study.

Burke’s book, What’s the Big Idea? may be targeted to English instruction, but I think the goals are widespread.  His purpose and mine are essentially the same: encourage students to think critically about what they read or observe, and then to communicate coherently about it.  His Big Idea crosses all disciplines.

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