Big Ideas Are Better Than Small Ones

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For a long time education bothered itself about the detail. Not that it shouldn’t, details are important, but it saw them as the purpose of our teaching. Revision for tests requiring the memorization of facts, with the best grades reserved for those with the best recall techniques. Entire research departments have been given over to the science of remembering. They still are. 

Don’t get me wrong, facts are important, essential even, but they are not the goal. Facts are what we build our ideas on in order to gain understanding, but simply remembering them is not learning. They are the paint we paint with, they are not the painting. Understanding comes when we can see the wood for the trees, when we can see the map for the way points. 

This notion of learning was made popular by Dr Lynn Erickson. Her Concept Based Curriculum & Instruction (CBCI) encourages subject teachers to help students discover big concepts (enduring generalizations) within their various disciplines. Her ideas helped a generation of teachers approach learning in a way that used facts to build ideas that could be explored in more than one context. For example, it helps if students can think more generally about the causes of war than the specific facts of the start of World War II , and it is better to discover the general nature of chemical reactions beyond the specific conditions for a specific reaction (though, in each case, the latter informs the former). 

Whilst many gains have been made within subject teaching, in terms of teaching students big ideas, we have not, however, seen the same progress in interdisciplinary concepts. This despite our increasing awareness that, if we humans want to solve some of the great issues facing us today, we need to address them as complex, interdisciplinary problems not just as discrete, disciplinary ones. The reason for this limited progress, I believe, is that each discipline brings its own approach and perspective to an issue. In other words, each discipline offers a different response to the concepts that lie at the heart of the issue. This however is precisely why interdisciplinary approaches are so successful, they bring fresh perspectives to a stagnant problem. 

This is why, I believe education needs to provide an approach that stimulates shared discussion around big ideas from all subjects. Such an approach needs to offer a mechanism that supports students not only transferring skills from one discipline to another but enables reflection and some comparative analysis of the relative benefits a subject insight brings. We need to in the words of David Perkins teach not only for understanding but also for transfer, for what he terms far transfer. A tall ask given our awareness that students often struggle to bring a simple idea, like how to frame an essay, from one subject to another.  

I believe however it can be done. I believe by offering students a decent set of common key concepts that are shared by all disciplines it would allow students to form connections and shared big ideas across subjects. By keeping that set small enough it would allow students to become competent in these, after which they could begin to spot and develop their own shared concepts. 

Where to start? Let’s start at the global issues that face us, the contexts that we find ourselves in and look for shared big ideas within these. In the MYP these issues are embedded in the Global Context, which crucially are shared. When these global contexts are turned into questions some big concepts emerge. If these concepts were to be our shared key concepts then this would add a symbiotic power to an interdisciplinary approach to teaching for understanding. 

Readers familiar with the MYP will be aware it already has key concepts but unfortunately they do not work in the way this article proposes on the simple basis that they are not shared across subjects. Actually I go further and argue that this means they do not even meet the definition they are given: “[MYP] Key concepts are broad, organizing, powerful ideas that have relevance within and across subjects and disciplines, providing connections that can transfer across time and culture.” If a subject is not discussing a key concept (see grid below) they cannot be claimed to “have relevance”. 

(Note: I would also observe that some key concepts are less an idea than an observation, example ‘change’ is more an observable event than an idea with explanatory power.)

Returning to the idea that the global contexts could help us identify a single list of interdisciplinary key concepts that could be shared across all subjects—in the MYP, and perhaps beyond – I propose the following ideas/key concepts:

Identity – that much of our expression and action emerges from what we believe about ourselves and our tribes. 

Perspective – that how we act is dependent on how we interpret things. 

Opportunity – that we see how we have been shaped by events and interactions and that we can gain from these. 

Development – that we are driven by a desire to try to better ourselves but it can have wider consequences. 

Interdependence – that the race for success, now on a global scale, brings us into tension and conflict with other groups and the environment but in a complex system everything is connected. 

Responsibility – that winners within a competitive market hold the power, but with power comes the choice of whether to exploit or to consider how we respond to inequality. 

Big ideas like these can be discussed by all subjects. Big ideas like these are relevant to every nation and seeing that different answers can so easily emerge is a crucial step to International Mindedness. Big ideas like these could even help students grow in their understanding of the human condition, which is perhaps the most important thing we can teach them at school.

Adrian von Wrede-Jervis is a Director of Continuum Learning in the Senior Leadership Team at Haimhausen Campus in Bavarian International School e.V., Germany. 

He is happy to be contacted via email ( or on LinkedIn.

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