8 Journey 8 Understanding the importance of big ideas

Issue 114, page 33
November 2013
Ian Mitchell Pedagogical Purposes Group

This journey is about building the notions that there are big ideas and key skills and that these have guided the teacher s planning. There have been a number of dramatic (shocking) stories over the years from PEEL classrooms that have brought out how foreign a conception this is for many students. The actual linking of tasks to these ideas and skills is more part of Journeys 4 (reflection) and 9 (active monitoring).

We have found that there can be a major issue of teacher change here as the extent to which teachers can and do articulate what we have defined as big ideas varies very substantially  - and at one end some teachers do not seem to do this at all. Good teachers will be highlighting their big ideas and key skills from day 1, but Journey 8 is framed as a student journey - that students become aware that the teacher has key ideas/skills and that all classroom actions and activities flow from these. We have learnt that this is a major shift for most students; it flows from multiple experiences of debriefing and other reflection about this, from building an understanding that their teacher is not just setting tasks but has agendas of big ideas and that one of their roles is to think about why they are doing a task in terms of the big ideas. This is, of course, one aspect of monitoring.

The value of linking to big ideas and key skills by students requires a shared language (Journey 3) in order to understand that tasks which seemed independent of one another were in fact connected. This might also include transfer of skills which seem to be domain specific such as thinking about writing skills in subjects other than English. This journey is also be improved by understanding of the teacher s purpose and long term agendas (Journey 7) with regard to understanding how individual tasks, fit together to form the bigger picture and the processes used to get there. It is essential that the teacher makes clear that they always have an agenda of key ideas as well as what the current ones are (Journey 7).

For the same reasons given in Journey 6, building this perception is a big step for many students, they do not see this as part of their role and, particularly early in the year, it needs multiple experiences of scaffolded reflection (Journey 4) where the teacher promotes and discusses this thinking.

Some ideas

8.1  Our current definition of a big idea is a unifying principle that connects and organises a number of smaller ideas and multiple experiences.

In other words a big idea has a linking function. Some ideas are more inclusive than others and there will usually be a tree diagram like hierarchy of more and less inclusive content ideas

8.2  In order for students to engage in Journey 8, it is essential that the teacher has thought carefully about what are his or her big ideas and used this to structure planning, presentation and linking of tasks and debriefing .

Different teachers may often develop somewhat different big ideas in the same area of content, in a subject like History they can be very different from teacher to teacher as different teachers use different lenses to view the same period of History. What matters is that the teacher has thought about this. This does raise issues for school level curriculum - should there be an agreed set of big ideas for a unit several teachers are teaching?

8.3  There are (at least) four types of big idea: big ideas about content, key skills, big ideas about learning and big ideas about the domain. These map onto two or three parallel teacher agendas

An example of a content idea is Legacy - the gold rush left a range of legacies that still influence our society. A second (and related type) of big idea is a key skill; subjects such as Drama, Phys Ed, English and Mathematics have many of these, but often there is a content idea behind the skill. Punctuation is a key skill in English, but behind this is the notion that the role of punctuation marks is to separate ideas. A third kind of big idea, central to PEEL, is an idea about learning such as the nature of  good questions. . Finally there are big ideas about the nature of the domain; History teachers commonly have agendas about who writes history and aspects of interpreting and using primary sources, there are increasing emphases in Science education about things such as values in science and the diverse ways that scientists work.

In Journey 7, (idea 7.1) we said that skilled teachers have a learning agenda as well as a content agenda, they may also have a Domain agenda with big ideas about the nature of the domain of (say) History.

8.4  Content big ideas come from both the domain and understandings of student learning and engagement in this topic. Both of these shape the phrasing of the ideas

This is different to using subheadings from text books as big ideas.. Text books and curriculum documents describe pieces of (say) science in ways that flow from the logical structure of the domain However these descriptions sometimes do not resonate with issues of learning that particular piece of science and are silent on, or take as given, aspects of the science that are critical to classroom learning 

8.5  There is a lot of pedagogical content knowledge in the way teachers build understandings of big ideas

This is another way of saying point 8.4 -  PCK differs from content knowledge by the inclusion of knowledge about how to teach a particular piece of content and much of this is based on experience of what students find difficult to learn.

8.6  A big idea should be framed in ways that show why and how it is big

Text books often give definitions or rules that relate to big ideas, but are not themselves framed in ways that show the big idea, if you drill down behind these you can usually find and frame a big idea - BODMAS is a rule taught in Year 7 maths, but the idea behind it is an idea about the significance of having an order of operations in maths.

8.7  Big ideas give meaning and purpose to classroom activities

We have found that for many students, the reason for an activity is no more than it is what the teacher said to do  - or a very fuzzy notion to find out something about [the topic]. If teacher planning has been done against big ideas/key skills, then it is not difficult to give reasons for activities in terms of these. This can mean that students are now thinking about what they are/have learnt about the big ideas rather than just have they done the task. 

8.8  A key aspect of sharing pedagogical purposes is sharing the notion that you have big ideas and that these drove important aspects of the lesson design.

This builds on 8.7, but, where 8.7 is about using particular big ideas/key skills, this is building the more general understanding that there always are big ideas or skills behind every task. (note that this means it is hard to justify relatively meaningless tasks such as word searches!)

8.9    We have identified a range of things that teachers can do with big ideas and can ask students to do

This is discussed in detail in Mitchell The roles of big ideas in learning and teaching (PEEL SEEDS 112), what follows is just a summary list

8.10            Build an expectation that students will talk about tasks in terms of big ideas


Judie Mitchell develops an expectation that she will regularly ask students some variation of Why did we do this? and they are expected to answer in terms of the identified big ideas of the unit. This routine takes significant numbers of weeks for students to understand her agendas and develop the necessary skills, but in the end it works well

8.11   One idea for a content agenda: the teacher uses big ideas to develop a set of learning goals (on a wall artifact) students add things they have learnt about these

during a community circle

Bree Moody developed a set of content goals and, at the end of each lesson, students added things they had learnt about each goal. In this case the goals were framed as questions about big ideas rather than answers.

8.12 Students make decisions about whether they need to do more work on a particular big idea.

This came from the same Bree class - she set more tasks than most students would need to do on each goal and the students made decisions on when they had done enough on one goal (big idea) and should move onto the next.

8.13           If connecting activities to big ideas is so important, why not assess for this?

This came up at the most recent meeting and opens immediate possibilities.

Relevance  to later journeys

As stated above, Journey 8 is about building the conceptions that there are big ideas and key skills and that these guide the teachers planning and purposes. This is an essential precursor to students engaging in this sort of linking and monitoring their understandings (Journey 9) - it is much easier to monitor your progress if you are clear about what ideas and skills the unit is about.

Recognizing the need to think about key ideas also helps students take more responsibility for their learning (Journey 10).