Big Questions, Big Ideas, and a Helpful Skinny Book

bigidealightbulbKnowing what to teach can be tricky. Really.

Given the seeming endless lists of outcomes, objectives, core ideas, etc. teachers face each day, that might sound odd. It seems any number of people and groups are oh-so-happy to tell us what to teach. But that can be the problem. When the lists are long and our time is short, how do we organize so that learning happens?

Here are two thoughts:

Big Ideas

Big Questions.

And like so many other things about teaching for creativity, they serve two purposes—creativity and learning. When thinking about infusing creativity in our curricula, one of the key principles is:

The content is organized around key ideas and questions that can be viewed from multiple perspectives. Where possible, it includes information about the creative methods of the discipline being taught.

You can find information on creative methods in the disciplines here. For this post we’re just thinking about the first part, organizing around key ideas. This can be harder than it seems, as most of us spent many years in fact-driven education. I’ll bet many of you can still tell me the dates World War I occurred but are fuzzy on exactly why. Or you can recite a formula from math or physics but have no idea when it might be useful. Curriculum that focuses on “facts first” does not help students learn in ways they can remember and apply later. Facts are important, but only in the service of bigger ideas. They are the leaves on the tree, not the trunk.

JapaneseschoollunchSo how do we find the trunk? One way is stop to consider what is really important—what do we want students to be able to take from this unit that they can apply elsewhere? One of my favorite examples was from one of my students, years ago, who was teaching a unit on Japan to third graders. While there is much in Japanese culture that could be of interest to young people, she wanted to start with an idea that could go beyond the unit. In her case, she wanted students to understand that the geography of Japan shaped their culture. If students understood that, they would have learned a powerful idea that could apply to many times and cultures. But my favorite thing about that unit was the way she did it. She started with a question.

Why do students in Japan often have rice in their lunches instead of sandwiches?

That was a puzzle. But once students started learning about how rice grows, and compared it to the way wheat grows (so essential for those jelly sandwiches), the differences in lunch choices made complete sense. It was an “aha” moment of understanding. And, of course, that understanding made possible other questions and inquiries about ways geography was important across the two cultures.

Good curriculum moves students toward “aha” moments, particularly those that can apply to different situations and perspectives. They are the grist for flexible thinking in ways that facts alone seldom provide.

EssentialQuestionsOf course, principles of good curriculum design are far too complex for one brief post, but here is the promised helpful skinny book: McTighe and Wiggins’ Essential Questions. Essential questions are key to organizing curriculum around big ideas. They provide the questions to which the major understandings of the curriculum are the answers. While my students’ lunchbox question was a bit narrow, it served as an essential (and very motivating) question for that unit. According to McTighe and Wiggins, a good essential question has seven characteristics.

  1. It is open-ended, that is, it does not have a single correct answer.
  2. It is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging.
  3. It calls for higher-order thinking, not simply recall
  4. It points to important transferable ideas.
  5. It raises additional questions and may spark additional inquiry.
  6. It requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  7. It can and should be revisited, perhaps in different times, places, or circumstances.

In its brief 110 pages, Essential Questions can set you on the road to curriculum that helps students raise questions and learn big ideas. It is full of helpful examples that can help structure content in ways that lead to questioning and transfer—and support creativity as well. I’m going to use it to think about my own teaching. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful, too.

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