What's the Big Idea? Understanding by Design Series #1 Ch. 3

   new school clipart image: letter b in a green apple  I have already discussed the fundamentals of Understanding by Design (UbD) in another post, but I love it so much that I decided to do a series on it. I will do sections of a chapter at a time (I have the book and used it in my master's program) so all of you can become acquainted with it as well.
    I am not necessarily advocating that everyone use UbD, but I am suggesting that we think of our units from a backwards perspective, which is what UbD is based on. UbD says it's best to start at the end and work from there. It makes sense. If I know where my students need to go, then I can create a careful plan that gets them to that destination.
     Today I want to share the idea of "big ideas" as discussed in UbD. The big ideas are essentially what units are planned around. Ideally, one would begin with the goals and objectives of the unit first. From there, look at what big ideas should be brought to light from this unit. Sometimes these big ideas are even hidden within the standards.
     But what is a big idea, and what makes it so big you ask? Big ideas don't have to  necessarily be so grand in size, as it turns out. There are a couple of factors, however, that determine if the idea is really big or not. These ideas are not obvious, and they have to be "uncovered". Here's a list, from the UbD book, that explains what big ideas are:

  1. Broad and abstract
  2. Represented by one or two words
  3. Universal in application
  4. Timeless
  5. Represented by different examples that share common attributes
     Big ideas can be thought of as:
  1. Providing a lens for a study 
  2. Providing breadth and meaning
  3. Pointing to ideas at the heart of the subject
  4. Requiring "uncoverage" because its meaning is rarely obvious to the learner
  5. Having great transfer power
     Are you still feeling confused? Don't worry. I refer back to my UbD book all the time. I don't claim to be an expert on UbD, but I do design my units around it. Here's some more of what a big idea might "manifest" itself to be:
  1. Theme 
  2. Concept
  3. Ongoing debate
  4. Paradox
  5. Theory
  6. Underlying assumption (example: texts have meaning, markets are rational)
  7. Recurring question
  8. Understanding or principle
     As you can see, big ideas are not black and white, and they can be looked at differently. A big idea is what anchors your unit. Every lesson is helping to get to the heart of the study. Designing units this way means that you do not just examine content for the sake of examining content, but the content is a means to get to the big idea. For example, we use Scott Foresman (which I dearly loved, and after loving it so much later found out that it was designed after UbD), and every unit is based on a theme. We begin with "Change". Our first story is "An Egg is an Egg". The purpose of this story is not just to love the story itself, or even to show all the things that change (an egg becomes a chick, a branch becomes a stick, summer becomes fall, etc.), but it helps to begin the examination of change. Having transfer ability (as mentioned above), is hugely important because our goal should always be that students can take their learning and apply it in their lives. 
    Wiggins and McTighe suggest that students should be able to apply their learning in unrelated areas, or transfer the learning. I agree. Isn't what we teach students things we want them to be able to use and transfer in other areas? Going back to "Ann Egg is an Egg", my class and I examine the story, but that becomes a tool to then examine our own lives. It always needs to go back to the students. Lessons designed around UbD require that students always go back and examine these big ideas in terms bigger than the text. In our case, my students and I determine what things in our own lives change, and what things might change yet. Is change okay, is it normal? I make sure that everything we learn can then be applied to my students by asking, "What does this mean in my own life? Or my own world?" If lessons do not have a greater meaning and cannot be applied in the sense that it pertains to the lives and world of your students, then is it really important enough to be doing? This is how I determine the smaller lessons that make up my units. If the lesson is not one step closer to reaching our end destination, then it is a lesson that needs modification, or is simply not needed. 
    As I have already said, I use UbD for my own units and dearly love it. Designing around big ideas make learning so much more meaningful and relevant to our students. I fell in love with UbD when I did my master's, and there is no way I can ever go back to designing units the way I did before (I'm not sure I had an exact way of doing it before, I just did it). Learning is much more meaningful in my class now, and I hope that any of you who decide to start using UbD, or design around big ideas, will have as much success with it as I have. 
   Series two coming soon...


  1. I <3 UbD. My goal this year is to create my new units using UbD plans... I learned some new tricks at a PD this summer that I'll be posting about later - it goes hand-in-hand with UbD :)

  2. I love it too. I have been using it since last year. Give me a few minutes (gotta do my makeup, I have some kids coming over for tutoring and don't want to scare them) and I'll put up some of my actual plans in the UbD format...

  3. Okay, mkeup is on and the link is posted.


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