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Teaching the Big Ideas in Science

For years I have had countless revisions in my curriculum as the standards and benchmarks for my district and state evolved. Lots of districts have tests that must be addressed in the curriculum. A few years back I began to rearrange my courses around the big ideas in science and see how that impacted the test scores of my students in science. The results were encouraging as my students made modest gains where scores had been stagnant for a while. So, the take home message for me was that teaching to the big ideas in science is a good thing.

I am not alone in this random thought. Greater minds like those at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Research Council and the National Science teachers Association all agree. Teaching students with content aimed at greater understanding of big ideas will lead to greater involvement, greater retention and higher achievement. That is all well and good but you may ask, what are the big ideas in science?

Grant Wiggins describes big ideas as:

“A big idea is a concept, theme or issue that gives meaning and connection to discrete facts and skills.”

In science we have lots of themes but those described by the book “Benchmarks” from AAAS is a good list to begin with. They call them unifying concepts.

  • • Systems, order and organization
  • • Evidence, models and explanation
  • • Change, constancy and measurement
  • • Evolution and equilibrium
  • • Form and function

To teach my class I love to start with, and often focus too much on, systems. When I teach about chemical reactions I teach them as a system of dynamic interactions and relate them to other systems the kids may have learned about. The most common is the solar system. Each part of the solar system has specific characteristics that determine how it interacts with the other parts. The same is true with chemical reactions. The characteristics of the elements and compounds determine how they will react. I the Earth was smaller it would make the dynamics of the solar system different because of gravity and a host of other factors. If we change the identity or characteristics of one element or compound in a reaction we change the dynamics of the reaction. If students are focused on the system as a whole and not just on the tiny parts they are aiming at a bigger idea in science. We actually learn by connecting smaller ideas to these larger ones. My goal this year is to focus more on evidence, models and explanation.

Georgia does a pretty good job with the big ideas at:

You can actually read the whole book on National Science Standards and the big ideas at:

So, where to begin? If you have a list of the concepts you teach begin by asking yourself a question or two. What big questions connect these ideas? Let’ say you are teaching the concepts in earthquakes and volcanoes. If you asked the question, “what geologic features occur with both earthquake prone zones and those with volcanoes” you are on the right track. So, let the questioning begin. I will chime in by sharing some of my more successful big idea questions in this blog as I move along. Feel free to add yours as well.

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