1. So What’s the "Big Idea?" The Great Uncover-up (1/3) – Best Practices for Education Professionals

Chapter 1
So What’s the “Big Idea?” The Great Uncover-up
David Iasevoli and the Students of “Content and Pedagogy” Fall 2010
A graduate class of teachers struggles to design curriculum around “Big Ideas.” The
aim of this study is to detail their efforts, along with the instructor’s prompts to “un-
cover” key concepts that already underlie their plans. They create brief demonstrations
for each other, to practice this strategy. The teachers write about and discuss their
attempts to keep revising such plans to illustrate their own students’ “enduring under-
standings,” in order for the latter to transfer knowledge across disciplinary lines. The
graduate class addresses some of the difficulties with this process in the face of pre-
packaged curricula, and the prospect of administrative priorities for covering material
on standardized tests.
For the past three years, I have witnessed new teachers struggle when they worked
with the Big Ideas that course throughout their lessons. Big Ideas and “enduring un-
derstandings” have not come easily to students—nor should they, in a sense. The stu-
dents often fail to “uncover” such large, comprehensive concepts at the core of the
curricula that they are required to teach—especially as they worry about “covering”
the content their students will face on standardized tests.
A central dynamics of “teacher preparation” forces young teachers to confront the
day-to-day realities of the classroom. This makes sense: testing and management stand
out as primary concerns. Yet, I wonder if teachers have forgotten---or perhaps never
even pondered—how to introduce children to think about the forces and concepts
that form the heart of knowledge. In the past decade, as I have taught in a variety of
teacher-education programs, I have noticed that many teachers and teacher-candidates
have turned away from the core content that lies at the center of their curricula. They
plan lessons that circle around or even avoid the mention of ideas.
In this chapter, I wish to illustrate an action-research project that focuses on one
class I teach, in “Content and Pedagogy,” to a group of 20 M.S.Ed. candidates. The
students all hold initial teaching certication—in a wide variety of disciplines: early-
childhood, physical education, high-school mathematics, and physics, etc. All of them
hold an initial certication in New York State, and a bachelors degree in teacher
education. Some already teach in their own classrooms, while others substitute, and
still others work in retail as they take classes full-time. The students’ involvement in
the investigation revolves around their creation of year-long curriculum “maps” that
outline ten units.
2 Best Practices for Education Professionals
You ask me if I keep a notebook to record my great ideas. I’ve only ever had one.
––Albert Einstein
Einstein refers to his idea of Relativity—or his Unified Theory—and not to the pos-
session of a notebook. This bit of folksy wisdom, from the physicist who is typically
regarded as the greatest thinker of the previous century, points to two strands of mean-
ing. First, our word “idea” comes from the Greek eidos, which Plato used to signify
the perfect Forms, the Ideals of existence. Second, Einstein’s observation reflects the
magnitude of a bona fide idea to a scientist. In everyday conversation, someone says
she “has an idea,” but this is not what Einstein was talking about. An idea is not the
same as a thought, whim, and notion. There are not that many “Big Ideas.” (Hence-
forth, I shall capitalize this term, at the risk of its looking rather clunky, but in order
to emphasize its position in the current investigation.) They are huge, and cover a lot
of ground. And, perhaps most significantly to pedagogy, they cross disciplinary lines.
Take, for example, Einstein’s creation of the Theory of Relativity. That idea of
Relativity refers, in physics, to the apparent motion of objects with respect to the speed
of light. Yet, Relativity also appears in many other scientic contexts. It is central to
the understanding that matter sometimes behaves like particles, and other times like
waves. Without Relativity, the distances and apparent magnitudes of stars and galaxies
make no sense. But, Relativity can also guide our understandings (or deeper apprecia-
tions) of history and literature. For example, the Revolutionary War and birth of our
nation can be viewed by European historians as merely one of a long series of colonial
uprisings: its signicance is relative. And to an English professor in a university where
Deconstruction rules, the meaning of a poem can never be absolutely xed—it is rela-
tive to the readers’ and critics’ culture, and a constellation of other factors.
I offer these examples to reiterate Jerome Bruners (1960) still controversial argu-
ment that,
intellectual activity anywhere is the same, whether at the frontier of knowledge or
in a 3rd grade classroom. What a scientist does at his desk or in his laboratory, what
a literary critic does in reading a poem, are of the same order as what anybody else
does when he is engaged in like activities—if he is to achieve understanding. The
difference is in degree, not in kind. The schoolboy learning physics is a physicist
and it is easier for him to learn physics behaving like a physicist than doing some-
thing else. (p. 14)
This, of course, is a fundamental argument in Bruners description of “the spiral
curriculum,” in which children re-visit and puzzle over, again and again, the same Big
Ideas throughout their school years, but each time in an ever-deeper and more complex
encounter. Thus, for example, the kindergartner may never hear the word “relativity”
as she compares the various sizes of spheres that stand in for planetary bodies, but the
Big Idea of Relativity grows in her understanding as she learns to maneuver images
from Google Earth, and the endless toys and artifacts that tie in to favorite movies and
shows. Again, Bruner (1996) is relevant: “When we understand something, we under-
stand it as an exemplar of a broader conceptual principle or theory” (p. xii).
So What’s the “Big Idea?” The Great Uncover-up 3
Bruners seminal work reects another disarming quotation from Einstein
(n.d.):Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as
a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone. This facet of under-
standing runs counter to many teachers’ perspectives on child development. Perhaps
they have listened, assiduously, to a lecture about Piaget’s (1973) theory of cognitive
development, and believe that young children in elementary classrooms have not yet
grown in abstract reasoning, and can thereby not deal with any Big Ideas. Such teach-
ers fail to grasp that all children—still in a “sensori-motor” stage or exhibiting “pre-
operational” characteristics—can think critically. This is a serious fallacy, I think, and
one that deserves a tough interrogation in teachers’ creation of units and lessons.
I suspect that many teachers failed to encounter and participate in any deep inves-
tigations in their own, early schooling experiences. Nevertheless, according to Frank
Smith (1988).
There is extensive evidence that every child is disposed and ableto behave in pre-
cisely the ways that are characterized as critical thinking.… It is by thinking in such
ways that children learn. (p. 51)
In other words, Smith posits that genuine learning demands critical thinking. Smith
de-rides schools’ efforts to teach “critical thinking skills,” and describes a capacity
and willingness to encounter problems—such as learning a new language—that the
youngest of children naturally possess, and indeed, exercise. He poses this rhetorical
indictment: “Is it a caricature to say that when children rst arrive in school they are
greeted with the good news that they no longer need to worry about nding things out
for themselves?” (p. 55).
Smith exhorts teachers to re-examine their own critical thinking about their need
to teach literacy and mathematical concepts by means of worksheets, quizzes, and
textbook exercises. He argues that teacher education programs rarely induce their own
students to evaluate the kinds of thinking that occur in schools: “teachers as well as
students are victims of the stultication of thought in education” (p. 57). In short, then,
Smith points to a fundamental failing on the part of teacher-education programs to
promote hard, sustained thinking about Ideas.
The notion of “backward design” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) has become a popu-
lar (if not mandated) element in the world of educational best practices. The teachers
I see happily discuss the centrality of designing assessments—as “evidence of under-
standing”—as they rst begin to design unit plans. Yet these same teachers appear to
have bypassed the signicance of any discussion of Big Ideas:
[They] are abstractions, and the design challenge is to bring those abstractions to
life and to make them seem vital. To say that we ought to design around big ideas
is therefore more challenging than we may have first thought.… [they] cannot be
grasped through telling and reading alone and are likely to be misunderstood when
first encountered. (original emphasis, p. 76)
According to this often-required education textbook, Understanding by Design,
teachers as well as students, need to uncover the core concepts that lay coiled within
their subjects or disciplines. Big Ideas appear in a variety of forms, such as concepts,
4 Best Practices for Education Professionals
themes, debatable viewpoints, paradoxes, theories, underlying assumptions (e.g.,
“Texts have meanings”), and understandings (p. 70).
Such Ideas demand concentrated thinking, and, as Smith points out, a shift away
from isolated skills. This argument develops along lines that trace back to Dewey’s,
in The School and Society (1915). Dewey exhorts us to replace “the old education …
with its passivity of attitude, its mechanical massing of children, its uniformity of cur-
riculum and method” (p. 35), with a genuine education that reects and refracts “the
larger whole of social life” (p. 66). Dewey’s vision describes such aspects as students
engaged in extended inquiries and experiments, with “the basal fact in that room is
that it is a workshop” (p. 78). In such a “workshop,” a Big Idea reaches a kind of
“critical mass,” as it turns an abstract into a tool for “sharpening thinking, connecting
discrepant pieces of knowledge, and equipping learners for transferable applications”
(Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 70).
The image of a school classroom as a workshop, a place where students and teach-
ers make something together has appealed to me ever since my graduate school days,
but I fear, has not been an experience for many new teachers lately. I believe teach-
ers who profess that they want to make a difference, in both students’ lives and their
worlds, but a quotation from my doctoral advisor, Ruth Vinz (1996), haunts me here:
Reflection relates to the struggle that teachers undertake to construct a life in teach-
ing and to constantly consider or revise their conceptions of what will take place
in the classroom … That power … offers the potential to transform teachers from
‘classroom technician to active political agent.’ (p. 205)
Many teachers I observe, appear wedded to the identity of “classroom technician,”
and express their worries that opening up students’ minds, in a genuine workshop
atmosphere, will take too much time and that they will then never cover the mandated
At this point, I must state my opposition to essentialism—the theory of education
that places essential value upon certain knowledge bases, such as that most famously
promulgated by E. D. Hirsch (1987). Hirsch et al. proselytize against ambiguity in
curriculum: they value the Canon of Great Books, say, as eternally good, true, and
beautiful. I believe that a teacher can approach work with Big Ideas existentially. That
is, the fundamental value of any Ideas comes from students working through them,
investigating their roots and appearances across a variety of disciplines, questioning
their importance.
With these provisos and guidelines in mind, the M.S.Ed. candidates and I, moved
towards the creation of curriculum plans as a nal project, but only by “unsettling” and
“problematizing” some of the typical habits and routines for teachers’ planning. Our
graduate classroom, too, became a workshop in which teachers tried out their favorite
“Big Ideas” on their peers.
I have taught nearly every academic subject throughout my teaching career, except for
foreign languages. My weakest area had always been teaching the sciences, possibly
So What’s the “Big Idea?” The Great Uncover-up 5
because I mostly ignored them during my own undergraduate years. Nevertheless,
I learned a great deal as a graduate student in education, in a “science for teachers”
course. One session still stands out from this course. We students separated into four
groups, and each group was assigned to a different center. I worked in the group that
dissected a large trout; another group got to take apart an auto’s cooling system; still
another looked at a variety of slides of both animal and plant cells under microscopes;
and the final—and luckiest group, we figured—experimented with the construction
and flying of paper airplanes. We each had a little over an hour to follow printed direc-
tions and reach tentative conclusions about our respective object’s form and functions.
Each group presented its ndings. We found that the trout’s gills covered an enor-
mous surface area. The paper airplane group discovered which shapes ew the fastest
or farthest or glided for the longest time. Before the nal two groups had presented
to the entire class, some of us surmised that all four of our groups’ activities shared a
certain Big Idea. This was an outstanding experience of inductive reasoning for the
majority of teachers in the room. We saw and felt and realized that increased surface
area enhances conductivity—of oxygen, heat, or air. And this excited us.
I hoped to mimic or recreate this sense of excitement—about learning even more
than about teaching—to the relatively new teachers in my “Content and Pedagogy”
course. Therefore, I assembled the following materials to help illustrate this prin-
ciple of conductivity and surface area: an “Eco-fan,” which sits atop a wood-stove
and uses the stove’s own heat to turn the blades to circulate warm air; a photo of the
gills of a large sh; a Portobello mushroom; two backpacking devices for cooking,
namely, a mini-stove and fry pan; and an old, burnt-out electric baseboard heater.
I separated the students into ve groups and handed each group one of the above
objects—without them viewing the other groups’ objects. On the board, I wrote the
following directions:
Identify your object—what is it exactly?
Discuss its purpose—what does it do?
Discuss its shape(s) and appearance, and how this may connect to its purpose.
Prepare to share your findings with the whole class.
Typically, this process lasted a little more than ve minutes. When each group took
a turn to share its observations and discussion, the other groups started to “compare
notes” and typically connected their own discoveries to the presenters. After all the
ve groups had reported, I invited them to brainstorm about what the various objects
share in principle. The class reached the tentative conclusion that my own science
class had reached back in 1982: form reects function, and, more specically, in-
creased surface area improves conduction. Two students offered the term “phalanges”
or “anges” to the whole class, as attempts to name the shapes that increase surface
area—these words come from the Greek for “nger,” and describe the “nger-like”
ns that comprise the surface of a cars radiator or of a mushroom’s gills. At the end
of my 10-minute demonstration lesson, I pushed the class to consider the following
questions and tasks:
What is the Big Idea here?