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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

#rawthought: What’s the Big Idea? A Thematic, Inter-disciplinary Approach

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

“It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night”  – David Ogilvy

I’ve been thinking a lot about learning lately, and how best to make what we choose to teach in schools poignant: meaningful, relevant, and memorable. Reflecting on the quote above, I think educators can learn a lot from the marketing sector.

from Disney’s 1959 “Sleeping Beauty” – the etymology of “poignant” comes from “to prick”

Part of me has always been influenced by my mother – a life-long educator who worked mostly with primary school children, ages 3-8. She would choose a unit of interest to the students – like “dinosaurs” or “rainforests” – and everything they studied would be related to that theme. She’d work in all the standards so that the numeracy and language skills, social skills and scientific thinking were all seamlessly embedded.  In fact, her entire room (as she was one to build and paint) would become a veritable theatric set based on the unit of exploration. I say “exploration” purposefully, as she was able to spark students’ curiosity to the point that they never really “finished” learning about something… they were intrinsically motivated to continue to research on their own – way after the designated “unit” had finished.

This dismantling of silos has always made sense to me –

– it’s how I personally think and learn, and it’s how I believe creativity works,  in a combinatorial, interdisciplinary environment with the safety to “be in the question” (see Keats – “negative capability”).  Many schools (and especially the International Baccalaureate PYP and MYP programmes) currently do this well – they encourage trans-disciplinary unit planning, overarching essential questions, and inquiry-based learning experiences. But I think more can be done.

Why not center the entire school-wide curriculum around umbrella concepts that spur big (and little) questions? I’m talking total multi-generational and interdisciplinary. I’ve previously pondered a curriculum derived from the lenses of philosophy and the arts (I’m still loving that idea), but I wanted to play with what grande topics could be the anchors of study. Here’s what I came up with (so far, and in no particular order although I might start with “knowledge” or “Identity”):

Umbrella / Anchor Concepts

Rihanna Umbrella GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY


Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1600

This explores the nature of power – how it is derived, maintained, corrupted / abused, wielded, legitimized, etc. It’s an obvious choice for Social Science research into governments, civilizations, hierarchies and specific leaders, BUT could be applied to the Arts, Literature, Science, Physical Ed, and yes, even Mathematics (why do we say “to the power of x…?”)

Identity (humanity)

Rembrandt van Rijin, “Self Portrait with Beret, Wide-Eyed”, 1630

This explores the nature of what it means to be human as well as the nuances of individual identity and one’s place in society. I could see Arts students creating “legacy” projects to leave their unique mark on the world, or language students delving into what it means to be “French” or “Chinese”. This would be an opportune time to host a “TED talk-esque” event or a slam poetry festival, allowing students to share their personal voice and insights into their respective identities. Biology students could grapple with “what makes us human” and computer science students could investigate how humanity has changed with technology. History students could conduct oral histories with family members and produce documentaries.


David, by Michelangelo, circa 1504

This is really about aesthetics, and would probably be my personal favorite topic. Beauty in nature, “elegant math”, music composition, poetry and word-smithing, iconic works of art, exquisite form in dance or sport, speeches from historical giants – you get the picture.


Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, 1937

I think this is a theme worth having, as it is the essence of being human. The most difficult application might appear to be math BUT what if students delved into statistics at this point – using real-world data related to these concepts? I can see a sustainability unit in Science, all kinds of cross-genre explorations into the visual arts, and oh my goodness, the literature connections (my favorite would be WWI soldier poetry)!

Hate/Love (good/evil)

World War II propaganda poster, Lawrence Beall Smith, 1942

I’m personally not a fan of black and white, binary thinking (I tend to exist in the grey areas), but I think this theme is worthwhile even if we don’t come to an agreement as to what is wholly “good” or “evil”. Humankind is ruled by hate and love and it’s worth assessing the consequences of both in all realms of life. This would also be a great entree into the concept of perspectives and critical consumption (for example, exploring propaganda). For Biology class, this is the time for sex ed!

Survival (and courage/ heroism)

The Bayeux Tapestry, circa 1070

A common literary theme that can be transferred to almost every domain – what makes a “hero”? How do we (or ideas/ systems, etc.) strive to survive? What role does courage play in this academic discipline? My mind immediately bolts to Galileo defending his discoveries to the skeptical Church, Goya’s iconic “Third of May” painting, classic heroes like Odysseus or Beowulf, population growth statistics in math, or Darwin’s theories.

Knowledge/ Truth (what is just/ meaningful)

Sketchbook, Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1508

I’ve taught an entire 2 year course on epistemology (“Theory of Knowledge” in the IB Diploma Programme). This gave me insight into the ways in which students are intrigued by, but lack previous exposure to, how we come to “know what we know”. In fact: “what counts as knowledge? how is knowledge created and vetted? who controls knowledge and to what extent might we question existing knowledge? how do science and emerging technologies affect knowledge? what constitutes ‘truth’?”

Offshoot thoughts might be: what is just / worthy/ meaningful? What is “ok” to pursue and what might we want to leave untouched? Which things matter most?

“Wanderer Above the Sea and Fog”, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

Yes, this is very meta. And that is perfectly OK. The beauty is that this theme is really the essence of all academic disciplines, and perhaps, being human itself.

How do you feel about this approach? I think it could be implemented in a particular course OR just as nicely as a school-wide (scaffolded) curriculum. I’m eager to hear your thoughts and considerations.

#school #art #philosophy #idea #education #IB #thematic #interdisciplinary #curriculum #amyburvall #learning

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