So What’s the “Big Idea?” The Great Uncover-up 11
I can recall the moment when I figured out that “surface area” was Dave’s Big Idea
…when I reflected on the experience in earnest, I realized that …a high school
teacher of mine formed this very concept as a Big Idea that has stayed with me for
over 20 years …
Later in his paper, he concluded that
… in some of the most effective examples … the Idea appears almost like a flash
of light when suggested by the presenter. The learner may be surprised or even
frustrated that (s) he didn’t “get it right,” but there is a sense of purity in the Idea
that is hard to deny.
I commented that Plato might have approved of such a formulation but, unfortu-
nately or not, we teachers rarely get to enjoy the luxury of anything “pure.”
Thus, a number of other students have wisely started to consider certain obstacles.
They wrote about the need for a teacher to work as a part of her community of educa-
tors in a school, and that such work around Big Ideas would most likely meet with
certain levels of resistance:
I wish I had learned this earlier. …The one problem I foresee is getting all teachers
to feel the same way.
While these concepts and curriculum structures encourage higher-order thinking
and instill educational values within students, they may be idealistic at times. I do
not think this method will be effective enough with only one or two teachers us-
ing the strategies and mindsets. That being said, I find one of the challenges is to
convince the colleagues to adopt this. It takes a lot of getting used to and practice
to be able to execute it well. I am not sure many of the teachers already within the
system will be willing to make such a huge change in their planning and personal
The problems that I see with Big Ideas are that just like any other new educational
idea, it will face skepticism from those unwilling to change their methods.
Some of these comments saddened me, but I did not argue with these teachers:
their unease appears justied, because something that appears to be new, such as Big
Ideas, is likely to be met with suspicion or derision or hostility in schools. The follow-
ing student’s comment may be the darkest, but also the most pragmatic:
Now, I am not the sort of teacher who teaches to the test, but the reality is that cer-
tain things are required of me and I must meet those requirements. That brings me
into my second concern: if the State does not require I teach the Big Idea, then will
the district I am in allow me to continue with this learning strategy? I know of many
districts that do not apply this type of strategy in the classroom, and I could see how
an administrator could be apprehensive with this type of instruction. In a time where
accountability is high, not following the district guidelines or curriculum map may
run the educator into dangerous territory.
There is such a deep irony at play here: school curricula have hidden Big Ideas—
beneath layers upon layers of methods and standards and tests. As Smith (1988) noted,
“Children may exhibit little critical thinking in school, not because they are incapable
12 Best Practices for Education Professionals
but because they have little opportunity to do so” (p. 59). Can we believe that teachers’
opportunities for critical thinking have also been curtailed?
TAKING IT ON THE ROAD
The students quoted above often worried about what I now call the Imperative of the
Right Track. They express their worries about accountability. Most of them need to
see that their hard work shall end up at a particular destination in their schools, such
as a tenured, secure position. They feel tracked. They usually speak of “teacher train-
ing” instead of a bona fide education in their master’s work that should enhance their
experiences with children. Yet, I think that their discussions above testify to a desire
to re-open their minds to possibility and ambiguity, when they have to design or re-
design the content for their students.
Where do we go from here? I think that some of these teachers may well be angry
enough with the past, pat formulae for instructions so that they may try to teach more
mindfully. Several of them expressed a kind of anger that they had never tried to work
with Ideas before:
[This course] challenged every aspect of my understanding. At first, I was frustrat-
ed. I wondered how I would be able to use this method when my understanding of
a Big Idea was so underdeveloped. My gut reaction is that a Big Idea was far more
complex than I had thought, and that using this method properly would be a daunt-
ing task. I wondered, Why hadn’t any of my educators addressed the true purpose
behind a Big Idea? I felt insecure and in a strange way motivated, to discover the
true function of a Big Idea in a lesson.
Big Ideas are meant to make planning and organizing easier while improving the
delivery to students. Quite frankly, I wish many more of my teachers had used this
when I was in school.
I asked several students to meet with me after one session to discuss the following
Why do you think that this work with Big Ideas has not come up before in
What can you propose to counter the concerns that teaching with Big Ideas in
mind shall go against the school district guidelines?
How can this work be made more useful?
Five students were able to meet me after the class: Brie, Sarah, Nicole, Kristilyn,
and Rae. We spoke for about 80 minutes, in a relatively loose, unstructured fashion,
but with many pointed comments that addressed the above questions.
Brie was the only teacher/graduate-student, who had had previous and explicit
experience with Big Ideas in her undergraduate work. …we always used Big ideas, for
all of our lessons, she remarked, and that would kind of steer the way that you run the
lesson. It was more opening [children’s] eyes to these ideas. Rae quizzed her about the
degree of explicitness here: In my undergraduate work, they were more implicit. …But
my feeling is that it would have been nice to have had the Big Ideas rst. Because I like
to have the Big Idea and work my way down to lesson plans.
So What’s the “Big Idea?” The Great Uncover-up 13
Nicole directly responded to the absence of Big Ideas in the prior pedagogical
classes, with …the Big Idea is kind of an interdisciplinary thing, and up until now it’s
been ‘No—you’re in the history class, before history class you were in the art class,
and next you’re going to math class.’ And that’s separate. And that’s with keeping your
door closed, and ‘I don’t care what the other subjects are doing. You’re in my class
now, and this is what we’re doing.’ She added, later on in the discussion, that Once we
had a label of Big Idea for this, it was kind of like shining a light on what was already
At one point, I read aloud the quotation from one of their peers (p. 20, above) that
expresses worry about “accountability,” and the possibility that work with Big Ideas
would draw away time from covering material deemed necessary for test preparation.
Here the participants in this conversation spoke with strong animation, but also offered
pragmatic suggestions. Kristilyn noted It could just be a ve-minute. ending … it’s just
using your time productively. It’s gonna take extra planning, but that’s on your own
time, and then added, Kids don’t want to leave class fried, because all they heard was
just facts, facts, facts. They want to leave with an open mind—and that’s something the
Big Ideas gives them. Sarah responded with That’s the whole point, of the Big Ideas:
to be able to go further. She included a beautiful image to describe what might happen
when a teacher works with both the minutiae of short-term goals and a bigger picture:
A lot of the times, there’s not the interlacing of the two—the content and the process.
And Brie sounded a note of hard common sense:
If the Big idea is guiding your lessons or you’re selecting the Big Ideas that feed
into the Regents questions, then aren’t you just making more connections to help
them with the test? If you’re helping them broaden that sense of an idea, or make
that connection in another place, then when they see something on the test, then
they’ll think, ‘Oh The Big Idea—we learned about this in other classes.’
Finally, each participant created possibilities for future work—both theirs and
mine. Sarah suggested that I assign the reading of an essay, such as this, to future
members of this class, to re-orient their thinking about the use of Big Ideas in their
lessons. Kristilyn wanted me to assign teachers to teach a genuine lesson to students,
with a Big Idea at its core, and then to write a reective essay about that. And Sarah
made the brilliant suggestion that we organize a day-long conference on campus, in-
vite administrators, have graduate students present to them, and earn “professional-
development” credit for their participation.
I think that many of these teachers shall continue to grow more comfortable with
ambiguity and the meaning of the content they teach (and often have to teach), and I
look forward to visits to their classrooms and continued dialog with them. I am hope-
ful that many have begun to consider that “best practices” in teaching means so much
more, than carrying around a “tool-kit” or “bag of tricks” that can enable them to deal
with any and all teaching difculties. Best practices mean “praxis”—that alchemical
mix of theory, practice, content and teacher persona. And I want them to keep wish-
ing—to not only hold on to their idealism, but to “grow” it, expand upon it, develop
their ideals in the face of opposition, and to think ever-larger thoughts as they work
among the schoolchildren.
14 Best Practices for Education Professionals
Finally, I believe that such teachers may truly get at what we wish “empowerment”
to mean: they grow in condence. Rae put this best:
This is part of our work here.… We should be implementing it. And if education is going
to change, it’s going to change because of what we’re doing. I mean, that’s what I’m
really hoping for, and I think the Big Ideas and the “enduring understandings”—that’s
what’s needed.So, unless we bring it into the classroom, it’s not going to just happen.If
nothing else [a conference] would make it so that people like us, teachers like us, who
enjoy the work with Big Ideas, don’t feel afraid—or hesitant—to teach the way we’ve
learned how to teach.
• Critical thinking skills
• Notion of “backward design”
• Sensori-motor stage
• Theory of education
• Theory of relativity