Teaching Handbook

Big Ideas

What is a “Big Idea”?

Excerpted from Grant Wiggins’ "Big Ideas, An Authentic Education e-Journal"

An idea is “big” if it helps us make sense of lots of confusing experiences and seemingly isolated facts. It’s like the picture that connects the dots or a simple rule of thumb in a complex field. For example: “the water cycle” is a big idea for connecting seemingly discrete and one-way events (the water seems to just disappear as it evaporates). “The heroic cycle” enables us to comprehend literature from many places, cultures, and times. “Measure twice, cut once” is a profound reminder about how to avoid heartache  and inefficiency in building anything.

A big idea is thus a way of seeing better and working smarter, not just a vague notion or another piece of knowledge. It is more like a lens for looking than another object seen; more like a theme than the details of a narrative; more like an active strategy in your favorite sport or reading than a specific skill. It is a theory, not a detail.

If an idea is “big” it helps us make sense of things. So, an idea is not “big” merely because it categorizes a lot of content. “Change,” “relationships,” and “number system” certainly encompass an enormous amount of knowledge and understanding, but these concepts don’t contain much insight or direction beyond their definition. They aren’t particularly powerful or illuminating on their own as concepts.  On the other hand, “For every action there is an equal reaction” is a powerful idea about change: we can use it to study, organize, make sense of phenomena, and predict changes in motion. So, too, is the idea that “blood is thicker than water” powerful for understanding many relationships in societies and throughout history – and, perhaps for understanding a few puzzling decisions made by our family members!

A genuine idea is thus not a “mere” idea. It is not abstract in the bad sense, it is concrete; it is a useful theory; it has real impact. For example, consider a detective trying to make sense of many puzzling clues whose meaning and relationship are unclear. Any theory as to “whodunit” will relate to motive.  A good detective has some big ideas about motive to bring meaning to what might otherwise seem like odd, isolated, and unique little facts to the rest of us. The “big idea” (whether it is “Look for love triangles” or “Follow the money”) is thus quite practical: it helps distinguish clues from unimportant facts, and shows the way toward more facts - and a persuasive narrative.

Similarly, in literacy or history teaching, the important “themes” are big ideas. Why? Because – if used properly – they provide learners with mental schemas or templates that help make sense of all the details of texts that threaten to overwhelm inexperienced readers. If I am alerted to “the heroic quest,” or “the American Dream” I can read and think with more control and insight. 

In science, the most illuminating hypotheses are the big ideas of science. So, the idea that we are all part of a “food chain” of living and nonliving things is big because it links seemingly different (and isolated) animals and plant matter into a bigger comprehensible “ecosystem” of energy exchange. We then see the role of predators, garbage, and our relationship to nature in a completely new and helpful way than before. Newton’s laws of motion are three of the biggest ideas ever posed: suddenly, thousands of seemingly unrelated facts and phenomena – spoons dropping, the tides, the moon’s orbit – had not only a meaningful explanation but could be seen as part of a huge coherent system with endless predictive and connective power.

In short: think of “big” as “powerful” not as a large abstract category.


A Powerful Idea vs. A Mere Abstraction

… we mustn’t equate “big idea” with a concept taught as a fact or definition.  Only when we help the learner see firsthand that an idea is an inference, and one with power to provide meaning and transfer, does it become a “big idea.”

… In short, if the word is just a technical term rather than a vital approach, it isn’t a big idea.

Covering Facts vs. Uncovering Understandings: Avoiding the Temptation to Treat All Scientific Ideas as Facts

…teachers often unwittingly conflate terms with ideas. In their desire to make teaching more efficient, they often treat the theory or strategy as a fact related to a definition … They end up turning an insightful inference into a thought-ending word. We pay for this desire to cover things ever more quickly: by treating all ideas as facts to be learned instead of inferences to be validated and analyzed through use, we unwittingly end up inhibiting meaning and transfer. Students end up just trafficking in meaningless words; science gets treated as a foreign language rather than a body of knowledge and understanding…

Now, suppose we ask: if you could as teacher alert the student to a key recurring idea that can make sense of the learning as well as further it, what would it be? What aphorism, imperative, and/or rules of thumb would permit the student to make more and more sense of their work and how to be successful all year in your course? That’s what we’re calling a big idea…

The real harm of stressing that ideas are merely words, phrases, and statements with technical meaning (instead of the power they represent) is that such teaching tends to end thought rather than further it. Rather, a big idea is alive. We develop understanding by extending and challenging understanding. A big idea reaches out, it pushes against boundaries, it asks us to possibly rethink other things we thought we knew. It raises questions and problems - and thus, generates new ideas. We see new connections and we initiate inquiries to validate or critique the idea. A big idea activates thought and permits transfer – and, thus creativity. “Coverage” of an idea, by contrast, kills it: our job is not to think with ideas but just learn stuff. The best teaching does the opposite. It brings seemingly inert content to life. And in science it reminds us that today’s Big Idea is potentially tomorrow’s discredited notion. This is key to empowering the student: there will always be room for new ideas in any authentic teaching of science as fallible theorizing…

"Big idea" doesn’t have its own template box because many boxes in the template should refer directly or indirectly to big ideas. If I say “audience and purpose” that’s a phrase representing a big idea in writing and reading. If I ask: “What is my purpose and who is my audience?” I am acknowledging the importance of that idea and framing it as an essential question. If I say “Great writing, like great art, is a function of utter clarity about purpose and audience,” then I am proposing a specific understanding about that idea. If I ask you to write the same piece for two different audiences, I am asking you to transfer your grasp of the idea in writing. (Note, therefore, that we both may agree on the importance of “audience and purpose” as an idea but propose different “understandings” about it.)

So, what makes an idea big? An idea is big if it helps us make sense of lots of otherwise meaningless, isolated, inert, or confusing facts. A big idea is a way of usefully seeing connections, not just another piece of knowledge. It is more like a lens for better looking than something additionally seen; more like a theme than the facts of the story.

Excerpted from Grant Wiggins’ website “Big Ideas, An Authentic Education e-Journal"


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