Focus on the big idea!

Educationists often talk about the question of curriculum. It is common to hear teachers lament the constant pressure to cover the syllabus. This is rather unfortunate, because the goal of education shouldn’t be to cover a lot of things, but rather to uncover the few important things. How then do we decide what are the big important things? Here are two guidelines that can help us as we think about the answer to that question.

Does it have more than one entry point?

This is an interesting question to ask as we think about what is important. The technical way to say it is that the topic should be interdisciplinary. In other words, different teachers should be able to refer to the concept when they talk about different subjects. One good example of this could be the idea of garbage decomposition. Students learn waste segregation as part of social science. They also learn about the idea of fertilizers in science. Compost is an example of fertilizers. This helps students make connections between subjects and learn the big idea of decomposition. They also learn the implications and applications of the concept as they learn different subjects.

Is it relevant to students’ lives?

Students are extremely curious. They want to learn and they want to understand things around them. This is why they keep asking the “why” questions. That is an excellent resource for us teachers to capitalize on. Learning would be a lot more effective if our students could see the ways in which what they learn would be relevant to their lives. Students have often asked me what is the relevance of studying about the French Revolution to our lives. If teachers aren’t able to give clear reasons for why we study something, learning would not be highly effective. I must add another quick point here. There is a quote famously attributed to John Dewey: Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. The way I understand this line is that students need to be able to relate what they’re learning to their life in the present, and not always have to hear that it would help them in the future.

The idea is not to change the content but the approach

For most of us teachers, changing the content may not be within our control. If I realize that what I’m teaching is not one of the few important things I should be teaching, what can I do about it? My answer to that would be that we can always approach a topic in ways that drive understanding. We can always draw connections to different subjects as we teach. And we can always relate what students learn to their lives outside the school. Essentially, the idea is not to ask whether the idea has more than one entry point, or whether it is relevant to students’ lives. The idea is to ask, how can I create opportunities for students to approach this idea from different subjects. And how can I make what I teach relevant to their lives in the present!

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