In BC’s Know-Understand-Do model, the “Do” is very clearly connected from grade to grade. In each grade and in various subjects within each grade, students will further develop their abilities to communicate and think. The grade three teacher can rest assured that teaching students to read is something they are carrying on from previous grades.
But how about with the “Know” and “Understand” aspects of the curriculum? What is it that students know and understand that is to be carried on from year to year?
How is the teacher to know what students know and understand from previous learning experiences and how is the teacher able to connect what is being taught to what is already known and understood?
It seems a bit much to expect BC teachers who continue to transition to new curriculum to also take note of each of the Big Ideas and concepts and content from previous grades. Even if they were able to do so, students, even those coming from the same class, have vastly different experiences and interpretations from their year, particularly when given opportunities for self-directed inquiry. Nevertheless, beyond simply asking students what they know about a topic, there are at least three ways to connect learning from subject to subject and grade to grade.
Firstly, teachers can, despite challenges, connect Big Ideas from grade to grade. In fact, many Big Ideas repeat. For example, in Language Arts, the Big Idea, “Stories help us learn about ourselves and our families” is used in Kindergarten to Grade 3, with the addition “and our communities” in Grade 3. Clearly, that is a big idea that can connect several years of language arts together, and students will develop a deep understanding of the concept and importance of storytelling.
Secondly, the curriculum has been redesigned so that certain topics that were once found in just one subject and grade – for example structures and functions of the human body systems – are now found in two or more grades.
Thirdly, there are bigger ideas than the “Big Ideas” identified in BC’s new curriculum. These “bigger ideas” can connect learning from grade to grade by offering a concept to which learning can be anchored. When I first heard the term “big idea,” it was in 2007 when a cohort of West Vancouver Schools teachers met with pro-d guru Sue Elliot to discuss Grant Wiggin’s and Jay McTighe’s Understanding By Design. This approach to teaching/learning suggested big ideas were “broad and abstract,” “represented by one or two words,” were “universal in application” and “timeless.” They present a “conceptual lens” for any area of study.
In my twelve years of teaching, my early years looking mostly at Grades 5-7 and my latter years as an elementary school administrator looking at K-7, one “big idea” meeting the criteria above sticks out more than any other, the biggest idea (in my mind!) of them all: relationships. Much of what students learn about develops this very idea: cause and effect, systems within systems, interacting with each other and students understanding who they are in the world. In using the Curriculum’s Search Tool and typing in “relationships,” the concept comes up in dozens of Big Ideas, and hundreds of content phrases and curricular competencies.
When I shared my thinking with other educators, some agreed and some had other big ideas – change, systems, integration, conflict and identity are all big ideas with the potential to unify curriculum.
I don’t know if there is a biggest idea in BC’s curriculum, but I think an overarching concept that unifies learning from subject to subject, and grade to grade, can help students make connections between what is known and what is about to be known.
In doing so, I hope that students see past learning as helping prepare for what is being learned in the present; and, as importantly, what is being learned as enriching what may have been learned long ago. If learning, past and present, can be mutually reinforcing, how powerful it would be for a student to leave their elementary school with an inter-connected story of their learning.