Sunday, February 17, 2013

What's the Big Idea?

"Big Idea, Essential Question, Content vs. Skill, Teachable Moments, Standards-based" - Sometimes the terminology teachers and education personnel use to describe their craft can complicate more than clarify.  None of these concepts is new to me, though I have experienced frustration with all of them at times in my tenure as both a student and a teacher.  The struggle to define exit goals, or standards, for our core classes several years ago elicited much angst and frustration from teachers who fear standardization of content and curriculum like the plague.  

As I recently spoke of standards and the teaching of skills, one veteran teacher I know - a Ph.D - noted that he believes that too often teachers are too enamored of their "Big Ideas" and, in turn, neglect the skill and standards they are tasked with imparting.  From an English literature standpoint, he means teachers can become so focused on their themes and getting kids to simply "love the story" and engage in discussion of prejudice or maturity or love, etc.  In the meantime, they neglect the skills of literacy necessary to pull those themes from the text.  And, writing about it is neglected all the further.  However, in reviewing the concept of "Big Ideas," I like articulating it as the information we really want the kids to walk away with - an understanding rather than a memorization and regurgitation of trivial details and superficial information.  It is the point of education, and it's the what Neil Postman surreptitiously called "the end of education."  In crafting any lesson or educational system, we must ask "what is our endgame?"  What is the goal and outcome?  What is the Big Idea?

Einstein once noted, "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school."  Certainly this idea is what Larry Ainsworth had in mind when he wrote, "Much of what I learned in high school and college I simply memorized for a specific test.  Once the test was over, so was my retention ..." (Unwrapping the Standards 25).  Too much of what is happening in classrooms is trivial and disconnected from a Big Idea or any explanation of making the lesson meaningful to students.  They are often so in the dark about "when they are ever going to use this" or "why we have to know this."  And the default of standards or school board policy or those tough college professors is lost on too many.  Phrasing Big Ideas as what students "need to know" and more importantly what students need to "be able to do" is integral to the success of any lesson or unit or curriculum.  Balancing the Big Ideas between content and skill is a necessary consideration, and I have seen teachers and schools that err too much in one way or the other.  Certainly, much of what we teach could be indicted as "trivial" and not in any way "utilitarian."  But Dickens discredited that approach long ago, didn't he?

As a school administrator faced with these issues in light of the Common Core, I would .... hmmmm.  Punt?  No, just kidding.  Posing questions to teachers in a non-threatening or accusatory is necessary for any administrator.  Too many teachers are on auto-pilot and too few give any consideration to standards and learning outcomes.  And I've noted before, when English teachers are asked what they teach, they often simply say, "I teach To Kill a Mockingbird."  Yes, of course.  But what do you do with it?  What's the point?  What's the goal?  What's the learning outcome?  What's the Big Idea?  Why this book and not another?  What do you want students to know and be able to do when they have finished this sublime piece of literature?  Other than to acknowledge that it is, truly, a sublime piece of literature.  Questions, questions, and more questions.  Always seeking "the point."  That is the Big Idea.

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