Contents

What are Big Ideas?

Big ideas are at the core of the subject or discipline. They are powerful ideas that promote insight and meaning-making and can serve as organizers for novice learners because they offer a structure for making connections. They point to the ideas at the heart of expert understanding of a subject. Most importantly, they are "conceptual tools for sharpening thinking, connecting discrepant pieces of knowledge, and equipping learners for transferable applications." (p. 70) [1]

Big ideas are most useful when they are sufficiently broad to require "uncovering" and "inquiry" by the learner. Since they are abstract and serve as "guiding conjectures" in a discipline, they are subject to refinement and iteration as we learn more. [2] This implies that we need to incorporate many opportunities for students to question big ideas as they work. They are not learning outcomes in and of themselves though they may form a basis from which learning outcomes are derived. Big ideas articulate the enduring understandings that you hope learners will retain and revisit long after the course is over.

One example is "we are all part of a food chain of living and non-living things". It links diverse animals and plant matter into an ecosystem of energy. It is an organizing principle. Newton's laws of motion are big ideas, on a grand scale.

Course Examples

Here is an example of a course overview highlighting the big idea that is core to understanding in the course:

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Mark Sample's course overview: Hacking Remixing Design (Davidson College)

Other course based examples:

Criteria

Big ideas represent understandings that are arrived at (or uncovered) over time through inquiry. They typically contain these elements (Wiggins and McTighe, p. 69):

In their book, Understanding by Design, Wiggins & McTighe suggest that (in practice), big ideas often manifest themselves as a helpful:

Learners uncover understanding through questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternate perspectives, experiments and explanations, etc.

Examples

Tips for Uncovering Your Big Ideas

Ask yourself one or more of the following questions as you consider the intention of your course [3]:

  • Why study ....? Why should we care about...?
  • What makes the study of ..."universal"?
  • If this course was a story, what's the moral of the story?
  • What's the big idea underneath the skill or process of...?
  • What larger issue, problem or concept underlies...?
  • What couldn't we do if we didn't understand...?
  • How is ... used and applied in the world?
  • How would we be changed if we understood...?

Reference

  1. G. Wiggins, J. McTighe 2nd ed. 2006. Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.
  2. G. Wiggins, J. McTighe 2nd ed. 2006. Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.
  3. G. Wiggins, J. McTighe 2nd ed. 2006. Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA. (p. 74)

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