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Identifying Big Ideas, central questions and themes

One of the hallmarks of effective teaching is to find ways to help learners connect with subject matter in meaningful ways. Sometimes that involves focusing on an important or enduring question that piques learners' curiosity to find out more. Other times, there are "Big Ideas" that people have explored for generations because they are not easily mastered. Themes are another way to group learning experiences so that learners perceive connections across their experiences from day to day and week to week.

How do teachers decide on major ways to organize their units?

Strategy #1: As discussed in Section II: Year-long planning, teachers often begin by making a yearly plan for the content areas they will teach. These plans can help them get ideas about major ways to organize their units.

Strategy #2: Textbooks and other resources frequently use Big Ideas or themes to organize units of study. Consider the examples on the chart below and think about which ones tend to spark curiosity and are likely to sustain students' attention over several weeks. Download this form and use it to examine your textbook or other resource materials to see if you can come up with some interesting ways to develop units in your content.

Exploring resources to discover Big Ideas

Topic Can this topic be stated as a more specific theme? Is there an overarching central question to explore? What are interesting issues associated with this topic?
Birds Endangered birds What keeps birds healthy and alive? Are eagles and hawks endangered?
China Cultural diversity: Chinese immigrants and citizens What role does China play in the world economy? How does China's growth affect our lives in the U.S.?
Maya Angelou African American women writers How has Maya Angelou influenced our society through her writings? What writers are important to study? Why?
Democracy The many meanings of freedom How does the ACLU try to protect freedom? Security, privacy and the war on terror
Maps and map skills Exploration How did Columbus find his way to the Americas? What controversies surround Columbus' coming to the Americas?
Statistics Opinion polls How do opinion polls influence our views of issues that affect our lives? Should our town purchase farm land to preserve open space?
add your own...




For an elementary social studies example, see Planning units around Big Ideas. See What makes a good social studies unit topic?

Download this form: PDF Version for printing...MS Word version for revising...RTF version for Revisin