Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Teaching Big Ideas

I've been thinking for a while now about how important it is to teach big ideas. When I speak of big ideas, I'm referring to the enduring concepts that transcend grade level and subject area. Throughout each subject area--science, math, social studies, and language arts--it's possible to take several content standards and group them into a theme-based unit, supporting the learning of a big idea (and creating a highly engaging project-based learning experience).

One of the big ideas that comes to mind is photosynthesis. It's probably not a stretch to say that most elementary educators don't give photosynthesis its due. All the way up to last year, I sure didn't. But consider all of the science concepts connected to what is easily the most important process on Earth, and its significance as a big idea becomes easy to grasp. (Don't believe me? Check out the book Eating the Sun by Oliver Morton). Consider that food chains begin with plants and they get their energy from photosynthesis. The fall leaf change occurs because leaves stop the process of photosynthesis and begin to lose their chlorophyll. Of course, this takes place because of changes in the hours of daylight which means you can teach about Earth's orbit around the sun and its effect on the seasons.

In social studies, westward expansion/progress is a theme that necessitates the teaching of several other big ideas: changes in transportation, settlement, treatment of Native Americans, exploration, the Gold Rush, Oregon Trail, etc. Because they fall under the umbrella of westward expansion, you can teach all of these concepts as part of a theme-based unit and have students create a nice project at the end.

So what are some other big ideas that you think are important to teach? Here's a list that I thought of with some of the other concepts that are connected to them:
  • Scientific Inquiry (scientific method, developing experiments, identifying variables, scientific communication)
  • Resources (renewable energy, fossil fuels, design process (have kids build wind turbines), earth science)
  • Tessellations (polygons (interior angle measures), regular polygons, similarity, symmetry (transformations)
  • Patterns & Functions
  • Fractals (multiplying fractions, similarity, patterns, functions)
  • Rivers (transportation, growth of civilizations, growth of cities & economies)

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BK said...

Great points! I think is important also to teach things about life that transcend being in a classroom.

For instance, my AVID students write thank you notes to people who speak in our class or when we go somewhere.

Today is a great example. We have tutor that has been with us the whole year. He is moving on to a new job. Several students volunteered to write thank you notes that are very sincere. Also, we are having a small party for him.

These are things you do when people move on to new endeavors. Life skills. Things that students in my school don't bring to the table.

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