Using Big Ideas and Essential Questions in Instruction
What’s a Big Idea? How Do Big Ideas Connect to Essential Questions?
A big idea, sometimes referred to as an enduring understanding, is an important concept or idea that students can construct as the result of a unit of study. Unlike isolated facts, big ideas can’t be merely transmitted to the learner, but must be “earned” by connecting individual pieces of learning over time. Because they reflect meaning-making on the part of the learner, big ideas are constantly being revisited and revised by the learner as they gain deeper understanding. They are often transferable from one content area to another.
For example, consider the following big idea:
Different choices can lead to different outcomes.
This big idea can be used in a US History class during a study of Congress’s decision to go to war, during a Psychology class while discussing personal responsibilities, and even in a Statistics class while learning about probability. The beauty of a big idea is that, when it is presented in multiple content areas, the understanding of the learner actually deepens.
How do teachers get learners to understand big ideas? In order to get students to think deeply and make meaning as they do, teachers guide their learning through the use of essential questions. Simply stated, a big idea is the answer to an essential question. One essential question can have many big ideas as the answer. Conversely, one big idea can answer a number of different essential questions.
Big Ideas vs Lesson Objectives
“My text book includes lesson objectives – are those big ideas?”
In short, no, they are not. Here is an example of a set of learning objectives from a chapter of a US History book in my classroom:
- Identify the European nations that sent the earliest settlers to America.
- Describe 3 differences among European colonies.
- Name 3 reasons settlers came to the New World.
- Explain what the Mayflower Compact was.
Because I encourage students to think beyond Eurocentric views of history, I added the following learning objective:
- Describe the impact of European exploration on the indigenous people of the Americas and on the rest of the world.
In a nutshell, the unit describes how the Spanish, French and English were the first European settlers of North America. They had various reasons for coming here – some similar, some different. Once here, their colonies had some similarities and some differences, one being that the English created a set of rules for their new society here, called the Mayflower Compact. The arrival of Columbus to the Americas had an effect on the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere, as well as on the people of Europe and Africa, which lasts until this day (called the Columbian Exchange).
Big ideas can’t be merely transmitted by the teacher, but must be “earned” by the learner.
Consider the difference between these lesson objectives, and the following essential questions and big ideas:
- What is imperialism? Imperialism is the act of one country establishing colonies in far-away lands to increase the power and wealth of that country.
- What is human migration? Migration happens when large groups of people move from one area to another.
- Why do people migrate? People migrate for many different reasons – some similar, some different.
- Why do people make rules? People create rules to govern their society and their behavior.
- How does human migration affect the world? The movement of large groups of people has an effect on the group that migrates, the people who choose not to migrate, the people who are already in the new land, and, sometimes, the rest of the world.
Which lead to deeper understanding? Which can be used over and over again? Which give the teacher more “bang for the buck?”
Why Focus on Big Ideas and Essential Questions?
- Are open-ended, having no “right answer;”
- Are meant to be discussed, argued, and analyzed from multiple perspectives;
- Encourage active meaning-making by learners;
- Lead to higher-order thinking;
- Raise additional important questions;
- Have multiple entry points, so all learners can participate;
- Naturally arise during study of a subject;
- Can be considered multiple times, adding important new information each time.
- Represent the “essence” of the content;
- Connect content from one lesson/unit to another and from one subject to another;
- Increase opportunities to practice and master concepts, skills and strategies;
- Allow the teacher to keep content grade-appropriate while allowing for learner differences.
Using Big Ideas and Essential Questions in Instruction
Big ideas and essential questions can be used in many ways in the classroom.
- Use an essential question as a lesson activator. Have students write a question (“What is time? Why do we measure it?”) in their notebooks and take 5 minutes to answer the question before you begin a new unit. Alternatively, post the question on the board, give one minute for private consideration then discuss. Record student responses; compare to big ideas later.
- Use an essential question as a writing prompt. After we have considered an essential question (“What problems are common to everyone? What problems are not?”) a number of times in History class, I will use the question as a writing prompt, reminding students to use specific examples from their lives and class to support their answers.
- Post essential questions in the room as they are studied. As an “exit ticket,” ask students which essential questions they addressed in the preceding lesson.
- Use essential questions as assessments. I always try to include at least one essential question on each quiz. Even if the majority of the quiz is fact-based content, including an essential question lets me see the deeper understanding that students have learned from their studies, especially if the same question is at different times during the year. For example, last year, we focused on “Why do people do what they do?” throughout the school year, and the students saw it on a variety of assessments in life skills, group, social studies and English, throughout the year.
- Review using essential questions. Put essential questions in a box. Have students take turns pulling a question from the box and answering it aloud.
- Sort big ideas by essential question. Pass out big ideas learned, to date. As a review, have students match big ideas to one or more essential question.
For More Information
For more information on big ideas, essential question, and Understanding by Design, see “UbD in a Nutshell,” by Jay McTighe.
Need a jumpstart? Download “Essential Questions (and Big Ideas!) to Encourage Historical Thinking” (based on the Historical Thinking Standards of the National Center for History in Schools).