Friday, July 6, 2012

Designing units around Big Ideas

          I am posting this because, as we are already starting to plan our next school year, I have seen lots of posts and conversations about unit themes. There's nothing wrong with unit themes, but instead of designing what  we do as a class around themes, we work around big ideas. I initially started this when I first learned about Understanding by Design about two years ago. The idea is that learning should revolve around big ideas, and that we should be uncovering the information as we work towards the big idea. In this way, you could actually incorporate different themes, and integrate between subjects. Since using this design plan, I have seen my first graders become deep, critical thinkers. Before I get down to the nuts and bolts of planning around a big idea, here are a few big ideas we have explored: Changes (How I change, the things that change around us, changes in a garden, geographical changes), etc. As you can see, big ideas can be incorporated as an entire unit (as I am used to doing). Each big idea is set-up as a focus question. We explore that focus question for one to two weeks, creating a chart to document our learning as we go (we discuss the focus question/big idea daily, and several times a day). UbD designers, Wiggins and McTighe emphasize that learning should be transferable, which is the goal of planning around big ideas.  The entire UbD philosophy and framework cannot be explained in one blog post, but you can view this video to learn more. If you watched the video, you know that UbD is a backward design. You start with standards and objectives, then plan what evidence will show that students have met the learning goals (traditional tests, quizzes, performance assessments, authentic assessments, etc.), and finally, you plan the learning activities. This ensures that all activities help students meet the learning activities. They are not just activities because they are fun, but they lead back to the learning goals. What I really love about this is that every activity leads the students closer to uncovering the big idea, so they are no longer reading just to read the book, but they read it to answer the big idea. You can also integrate all subject matters, which enhances student learning. 

   One last example of planning around big ideas: the last unit my class and I explored was called (surprisingly enough) "Big Ideas". Here are just a couple of big ideas (set up as questions) we explored during the unit: "When do we need a clever solution?", and "What ideas changed the way we lived"? During this unit, we learned about simple machines, inventors (B. Franklin, A.G. Bell, which also allowed us to explore biographies), came up with our own inventions, wrote about them, and even designed them using only geometrical shapes. As you can see, big ideas are broad enough to include all subject areas and content, and allows you to work with your state's content standards. This is why I love UbD, but, more importantly, the idea of using big ideas when designing my units. Anyone interested in seeing a unit that I created and used can click here. My units are planned using big ideas for two weeks at a time, however each lesson plan (which can be seen by clicking the previous link) is set-up weekly. Therefore, I use the same standards/objectives, essential understandings/questions, evidence, for two week in a row. What changes in my plans are the specific activities within the weekly schedule as I pull them from my unit plan, sometimes making changes as needed. 

   I would love to hear what all of you think about UbD and designing around big ideas. Do you do this as well? If not, how do you plan your units? Please share your thoughts. 

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