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Big Ideas Across Curriculum

This is an excerpt from Core Teaching Practices for Health Education by Phillip C. Ward & Shonna L. Snyder.

What Is a Big Idea?

A big idea is a concise statement of a health outcome. It is a way to package all the lesson’s pieces of knowledge and experiences together so that students can see them as related. The notion is similar to seeing the picture of a puzzle as you start to put the pieces together. That picture guides the organization of the puzzle pieces. Wiggins (2010, p. 1) calls an idea big “if it helps us make sense of lots of confusing experiences and seemingly isolated facts.” Big ideas connect knowledge with experiences learned in a unit. Here are five examples of big ideas in health:

  • Understanding that we are all both similar and different helps us communicate well.
  • Taking responsibility for one’s own health is an essential step toward developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
  • Sexuality is a natural and healthy part of living.
  • Knowing about our bodies and making choices helps us look after ourselves.
  • Healthy relationships can help us lead rewarding and fulfilling lives.

In the introductory vignette, “Healthy choices influence our physical, mental, and emotional well-being” was the big idea. Ms. Cacho used that big idea to organize the enduring understandings and the essential questions of the unit’s content to meet her state standard: “Students will demonstrate the ability to use decision-making skills to enhance health.” Figure 2.1 shows the interrelationships of a standard, big ideas, enduring understandings, and essential questions. Big ideas are driven by standards that students are expected to meet and are operationalized through the use of enduring understandings and essential questions.

Figure 2.1 Interrelationships of a standard, big ideas, enduring understandings, and essential questions.
Figure 2.1 Interrelationships of a standard, big ideas, enduring understandings, and essential questions.

For teachers, organizing teaching around a small number of big ideas is an efficient and effective strategy. Big ideas organize content to create an understanding of the connectivity of health education across the curriculum and grade levels. Such understanding in turn allows teachers to make use of connections and concepts within and between big ideas.

For students, big ideas create coherence by organizing and connecting ideas. A big idea might be stated differently by teachers. For example, one teacher might say, “You are the decision maker,” and another might frame it as, “Health is personal power.” Regardless of the phrasing, the meaning is the same. Big ideas occur across grade levels (e.g., preK-12), stand the test of time (e.g., contagious diseases), are applied across different subject areas (e.g., implicit bias), recur in a variety of content (e.g., being a decision maker is relevant in a variety of health content areas), and are applied to contexts that students may not yet have encountered in their lives (e.g., reflection) (Wiggins 2010).

Big Ideas Across the Curriculum

Big ideas have been used in two ways across curricula. One way is to use the same set of big ideas, which are unpacked in more depth with each successive grade level. For example, Roosevelt Public School in New Jersey uses four big ideas across their K-6 curriculum:

  • Taking responsibility for one’s own health is an essential step toward developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
  • Critical thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, leadership, and communication skills are essential to making informed personal, family, and community health decisions.
  • Knowledge about drugs and medicines informs decision-making related to personal wellness and the wellness of others.
  • Understanding the various aspects of human relationships and sexuality assists in making good choices about healthy living.

A second way to use big ideas is to expand on them with increasingly sophisticated description. For example, table 2.1 shows the big ideas used in health education from kindergarten to year 12 in the health curriculum. Although this example shows four big ideas per grade level, the columns should not be viewed as thematic development because these big ideas grow to encompass some elements of earlier ideas. In short, some big ideas overlap over time. However, a curriculum could use big ideas that intentionally remain the same over time.

Table 2.1 Big Ideas in Health Education Across the Curriculum

More Excerpts From Core Teaching Practices for Health Education