Thursday, 20 June 2013

Thinking about Big Ideas

Ever since my second year of teaching, creating big ideas to drive student learning has been the focus of curriculum development at my school.  Each course, in general, has one big idea that the students should understand inside and out by the end of the course.

Creating big ideas for courses is hard work.  In grade 10 Canadian history, over the last four years, we have attempted three or four big ideas.  This year our big idea is:

The Canadian identity is revealed through its past.

We have committed to sticking to this idea for two school years.  There was concern that we weren't fully testing out an idea before deciding it didn't work.  I don't think this big idea is particularly earth-shattering, but it works for the course because it allows flexibility for the teacher.

Please don't tell me this is the Canadian identity!!!

Part of me is starting to question the value of having one overarching big idea.  To explain, the big idea for history is rather obvious, but it is working for our purposes.  There is a built-in flexibility to it, but I wonder about its value if it is so flexible and open to interpretation.  I think the reason this big idea appears to be working is because each unit has its own big idea and driving question.  I told a colleague that I found Unit 3 to be more focused and I had a direction.  She asked if it was because it was my fourth time teaching the course or because the big idea helped.  I don't think it was any of those reasons.  Unit three was clearer to me because I had a "mini" big idea:  Canada's prime ministers worked to create a model society.  I can't help but think "mini big ideas" are a more effective way to structure the course.

The "multiple mini big ideas" do pose a problem.  How do we truly backward design a course if there isn't one overarching concept for the students to understand?  What would the final culminating task look like? I think our department has found an acceptable solution in having a broad, if obvious, big idea, because our "mini big ideas" really provide the focus and the big idea ties them together.

In addition to history, I also teach English.  All of our English classes have three big ideas in common:

1. Everything that contains meaning is a text, which can be understood using strategies.
This big idea is useful, because at the end of a course, students should have developed and practiced various strategies to understand the meaning of a text. Students learn a variety of ways to approach texts, such as TPCASTT, SOAPSTone and Says/Does Analysis.

2. Understanding texts leads to a better understanding of the self and the world.
The concept behind this big idea is valuable because it offers an explanation for why we read Shakespeare or analyze a poem. Reading texts develops an awareness to new people, places and ideas. That said, I can't help but feel that this big idea is rather "airy fairy". How can we assess whether or not a student now has a better sense of the self and the world? Do we want to assess if they better understand themselves and the world? I am not arguing that this isn't important, but I don't think this understanding can effectively be evaluated in a passage analysis or an analytical paragraph. First off, we would have to a base line. To what degree did students understand themselves and the world before reading a text? How can we track this change?

3. A person’s message is best understood by an audience when it is communicated in a clear and concise manner.
I love this big idea. I find it very freeing. We can study anything in English class, as long as the students are working on their communication skills. This big idea is cross-curricular and focuses on an important skill: the ability to effectively communicate. I am well aware that very few of my students are going to go on to study English, but ALL of them need to be able to effectively communicate.

In addition to the common big ideas, each course has its own big idea. I can only address the two courses I have taught recently. The big idea of ENG1D1 is: Everyone faces challenges in their life and develops strategies to try to overcome them. The big idea of ENG3U1 is: Considering multiple viewpoints allows people to better understand the world around them. A colleague describe these big ideas as "strangling" and I agree.

The big idea for ENG1D1 sounds like a big idea for a learning strategies course. To be honest, when reading To Kill a Mockingbird or A Midsummer Night's Dream, I don't care if the students can identify the strategies Scout or Helena develop to overcome their issues. I am more interested in the "meatier" themes of the novels, such as the impact of discrimination or the value of women in Athens.
The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania
by Joseph Noel Paton
I find the current big idea "strangling" because I feel as though the focus of studying this great works of literature is on something so narrow that the true value of the texts is lost. I feel the same way about the big idea in ENG3U1. I don't want to assign a numerical grade to the students' ability to better understand the world around them. I want to expose them to varying viewpoints and help them see new perspectives, but I don't think I can evaluate their understanding in a meaningful way. In essence, I think the course-specific big ideas are interesting ideas to discuss, but I don't think it is necessary to connect every text studied to the big idea. I want the students to read a variety of texts for their value, not because they fit into a "strangling" framework.

Overall, I think big ideas can help focus a unit, but I wonder if an overarching big idea for an entire class ends up being so broad that it isn't really meaningful.

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