About this time last year, I wrote about big ideas in the history and English courses I was teaching.
I felt that in history the overall big idea was really vague, but that the enduring understandings of each unit were the driving forces. Lisa Unger, one of my colleagues, has done a lot of thinking about the big idea for CHC2D1, and has come up with some important questions that connect the enduring understandings to the big idea. This has been incredibly helpful for me. The big idea for CHC2D1 is "The Canadian identity is shaped by its past." Instead of focusing on content-driven questions, such as "how did Vimy Ridge shape Canada's identity?", the focus has moved to broader questions, such as "how has participation in overseas shaped Canada's identity?" Or "how have contributions to the war effort on the home front shaped the Canadian identity?" This can also lead into a compare and contrast question, such as, "what has a greater effect on a nation's identity: the role overseas or the war at home?"
I feel that these types of questions move the focus from covering content to using content in a way to answer significant questions. This makes the big idea flexible in that teachers (and students) can choose what areas of content to focus on, but it ensures that students leave the course learning how to answer the same questions, perhaps just a bit differently.
Additionally, in my post from last year, I was rather critical of the fourth big ideas in each of our English courses. The first three, that are common to all courses, have a built in flexibility and are easily applicable to the study of English. As I previously wrote, the fourth big idea can be rather "strangling" to quote a colleague. For example, the fourth big idea for ENG3U1 focuses on understanding the world around us. At this time last year, the big idea in the course seemed to always be a stretch for me to explicitly teach. It felt forced and the connections weak.
This semester, in collaboration with Andrea, we have fleshed out three key ideas that tie all of our texts together: identity, struggle and relationships. I think this clearer direction also brings to life the big idea. By studying these key ideas, students naturally begin to better understand the world they live in. They can begin to see the connections between the experiences of others and hopefully draw parallels to their own lives.
The process of creating big ideas, and the freedom to play with them and challenge them, allows teachers to truly see their role in designing meaningful (hopefully) experiences for students.