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What are Big Ideas?. Teaching for Understanding Making our courses more effective. This is a message from your system AER committee…. Please don’t shoot the messenger! Do you feel confused by all of the AER terms and concepts? AER Terms Prezi

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What are Big Ideas?

Teaching for Understanding

Making our courses more effective

This is a message from your system AER committee…

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Please don’t shoot the messenger!

Do you feel confused by all of the AER terms and concepts?

AER Terms Prezi


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What are the Learning Goals Today?

  • To define Big Ideas & Essential Questions

  • To see where the concepts came from

  • To determine why they are important

  • To pick up some hints on how to extract the Big Ideas and develop Essential Questions from curriculum

  • To prepare for a session later where you will work on developing Big Ideas and Essential Questions for a course you teach

  • To develop a set of Anchor posters for your classes on these topics

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Where do these terms come from?

  • Understanding by design by McTighe and Wiggins “UbD”

  • Developers of the concept of Design Down or Backward design for curriculum development

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Principles of Understanding by Design

  • Planning is best done “backward” from the desired results

  • “plan with the end in mind”

  • Expectations are transformed into targets based upon “big ideas,” essential questions and transfer tasks

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Teach for content mastery

Discrete skills or facts out of context

“Linear” superficial coverage

Text as Curriculum


Help students learn to use content and understand

Draw on skills in realistic contexts & authentic tasks

A curriculum based upon reoccurring “big ideas” and core tasks

Text as a resource in support of learning goals

U by D demands a shift in focus

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How does it fit?

  • Three stages of Backward Design

    Stage 1: Identify Desired Results

    Expectations to Big Ideas to Essential Questions to Skills and Knowledge needed to achieve this

    Stage 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence

    “Begin with the end in mind”

    Think about what Core Tasks; Performance Tasks or demonstrations of learning will provide valid evidence of a student’s ability to achieve the desired results

    Stage 3: Plan Learning Experiences

    Plan lessons in a structured way under the umbrella of essential questions.

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Why is this important?

  • Curriculum design requires us to make choices about what is essential NOW to help our learners in the future.

  • Learning not tied to real-world experiences is soon forgotten.

  • You must try to “hit the proverbial nerve” of your students to promote real learning

  • Without transparent and important priorities - stated as performance, not content - neither teacher nor student can be effective

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What is a Big Idea?

  • A big idea offers a conceptual framework allowing the learner to explore answers to the essential questions involving a unit of study.

    -Grant Wiggins

  • Answer questions like:

    • Why exactly are we teaching…?

    • What couldn’t people do if they didn’t understand…?

    • What do we want students to understand and be able to do 5 years from now?

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  • “What is big to the teacher or the expert in the field is often abstract, lifeless, confusing, or irrelevant to the student. What may be a vital conception to the expert in the field of study may well seem nonsensical, unintelligible, or of little interest to the novice.” p. 75 UbD

  • “The challenge of teaching for understanding is largely the challenge of making the big ideas in the field become big in the mind of the learner.” p. 75 UbD

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What is an enduring understanding?

  • One or more Big Ideas framed as an understanding!!!! (in a sentence)

  • A Big Idea is developed by the lessons that organize the learning of the skills and knowledge that allow students to uncover its meaning by answering essential questions.

  • It is an on-going process!

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How does it fit?

  • Curriculum Documents

    -unpacking the Overall and Specific Expectations

  • Big Ideas & Enduring Understandings

    -Makes you think of Core Tasks (Performance Tasks) & Assessments

  • Essential Questions

  • Lesson Learning Goals & Development

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Clarifying Content Priorities

  • Content that is worth being familiar with

  • Content that is important to know and do

  • “Big Ideas”

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Unpacking the curriculum

Standard (we call them expectations)

Students will compare and contrast (purposes, sources of power) various forms of government in the world (e.g., monarchy, democracy, republic, dictatorship) and evaluate how effective they have been in establishing order, providing security and accomplishing common goals.

Verbs (How students will show what is required)




Nouns (What students are required to know)

Forms of Government:







Common goals

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Examples of abstract curricula

  • The earth does not appear to move to human observers

  • There are no obvious signs of our being descended from primates

  • It seems bizarre that the founding fathers of the U.S. democratic system kept slaves

  • The text of Hamlet seems to have nothing to do with adolescent angst and depression

  • Derivatives and integrals make no conceptual sense to the novice calculus student

  • The facts found on Wikipedia are less credible than facts found in academic journals

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Revealing the Big Ideas

Big ideas are revealed, not identified, through…

  • Focusing themes or concepts

  • On-going debate

  • Insightful perspectives

  • Finding underlying assumptions

  • Paradoxes, problems, challenges

  • Organizing theories

  • Overarching principles

  • Provocative questions

  • Processes in the field; problem-solving, decision-making

  • By identifying the nouns and verbs in the standards or overall expectations.

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What is the difference?

  • Expectations: written from the point of view of “all students will…”

  • Big Ideas: Stated concisely

    “all forms of measurement contain errors”

  • Essential Questions:

    • Stated as questions in a way that provides an umbrella for learning a host of skills and knowledge

    • Engaging and real for students (in words students can understand)

    • “How does the use of measuring devices introduce error into measurement?”

  • Learning Goals:

    • Written as performance statements with reference to Big Ideas and Essential questions and refer to the actual goals of lessons designed to help students answer the essential questions (should be explicit in every lesson)

    • E.g. “Today’s learning goal is to perform an activity using several measuring devices in order for students to learn the type and degree of errors involved in each device.”

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Why are Big Ideas important?

  • Student engagement increases

    • Curriculum ties to other courses and life

    • Authentic tasks make it real

    • Students know the reason why they are doing each lesson as it fits into the big picture of the

    • Essential Questions are generated from Big Ideas and form the basis for our lessons and student learning by linking knowledge and skills to a greater purpose and creating deeper understanding.

    • Essential questions are worded in language students can understand

  • Deeper understanding allows students to transfer knowledge and skills to meet new challenges.

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Criteria…Types of Big Ideas

  • Concepts…economics…”supply & demand”

  • Themes…good triumphs over evil

  • Debates…a winning team is one where offence beats defence; conservative vs. liberal

  • Perspective…the glass is half full or half empty

  • Paradox…freedom involves responsibility; poverty amid plenty

  • Theory…form follows function

  • Principle…less is more

  • Assumption…non-fiction text always depicts truth; markets are rational

  • Authentic problems…voter apathy

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Big Idea checklist…

  • Does it have many layers not obvious to the inexperienced learner? Is it an “Umbrella term”

  • Does one have to dig deep to truly understand its meaning or implications?

  • Is it prone to disagreement?

  • Might it change over time?

  • Does it go to the core of the curriculum? Is it historically important yet, still alive in the field for debate?

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Big Idea checklist continued…

6. Is it transferable to new situations and learnings a student will meet in the future?

7. Is it abstract, not obvious?

8. Is it counterintuitive?

9. Is it prone to misconception?

10. Does it allow students to ask and re-ask questions to clarify and uncover the idea as they go through the course?

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What a Big Idea is not…

  • A question

  • A concept or piece of knowledge

  • A narrow concept

  • Written as an objective/expectation of students

  • An activity (e.g. can sort French words into lists of nouns and verbs)

  • A skill – can light a Bunsen burner

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What are essential questions?

  • Questions based on Big Ideas that frame learning goals of a course. (May have several for a Big Idea).

  • They are not answerable with finality in a brief sentence

  • They stimulate on-going thought as new experiences help clarify them for learners.

  • They provide focus for the Big Ideas throughout a course using language that is understandable by students

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Essentials of essential questions

  • Cause genuine and relevant inquiry

  • Broad in scope, and provoke deep thought, lively discussion, inquiry, and more questions; never fully answered

  • Pose authentic dilemmas

  • Force incongruities into our attention

  • Require students to consider alternative views, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers

  • Stimulate vital, ongoing rethinking and meaningful connections of big ideas, assumptions, and prior lessons and learning; timeless in nature

  • Naturally recur, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations and subjects

  • Perpetually arguable…the answers will change over time for students as they see them again in new subject settings and add new experience

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  • “Instead of thinking of content as stuff to be covered, consider knowledge and skill as the means of addressing questions central to understanding key issues in your subject.” p. 107 UbD

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Essential Questions from our Big Ideas

  • Design of curriculum influences the success of our students.

    • How does Backward design lead to better student understanding?

  • Big Ideas are uncovered from curriculum and organize our teaching and assessment.

    • How can Big Ideas be uncovered in our curriculum?

    • What would students have to do to demonstrate they understand the Big Idea?

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Essential Questions from our Big Ideas

  • Essential Questions are generated from Big Ideas and form the basis for our lessons and student learning by linking knowledge and skills to a greater purpose and creating deeper understanding.

    • How can Big Ideas be phrased so that students understand them?

    • What makes Essential Questions effective?

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Future Learning Goals

  • On Feb 2nd …Time to work on extracting the Big Ideas from one of your courses and developing essential questions.

  • Ultimate goal is to develop a set of “posters” that show these Big Ideas and essential questions for use in the classroom to anchor your teaching.