Monday, October 02, 2006

Use of big ideas/concepts in teaching geography

What is the use of ‘big ideas’ in the teaching of Geography? Does it mean the use of big words and ‘chim’ content that simply packages the subject to make it look substantial but simply puts the students off? I seriously hope not. Well, according to Meyer and Land (2003), ‘big ideas’ can also be known as ‘threshold concepts’. The use of ‘big ideas’ allows for levels of understanding in a subject to take place and this kind of understanding at levels can be used in assessment for learning. Ah, now I think I’m seeing something. Ok so it’s something like a big picture where everything else falls in place. This then set me thinking of what kinds of chemistry ‘big ideas’ and my teaching will have in future:

How Big Ideas Shape My Teaching: The outsider’s view

I think I’ll use ‘big ideas’ to structure my content so as to assist in the broader understanding of the concepts. I’ll have to link up the ‘big ideas’ in geography with the ability to think geographically’. There is perhaps one overriding idea, which is: ‘understanding place and space through making connections between them’. Through the use of ‘big ideas’, many subsidiary ideas could be derived from this one ‘overriding idea’ for example places, space and scale (mapping out physically or mentally), connections, interdependence, environment, people and nature, process and system etc. By being able to come up with subsidiary ideas, it aids both the teachers and students to think about a framework that is more flexible and encompassing than a purely content led framework.

Take for instance the concept of uneven development. This concept is concerned with the uneven distribution of geographical phenomena in space and time. Through the ‘big idea’ of uneven development, students can then think of the many linkages that it has to other ideas such as physical and human features accounting for differences and unevenness, the consequences that these differences will have on the people living there. It also can lead students to the study of resource allocation.
However, in so doing, comprehension may exist but I’m sure meaning has definitely not been created. In order to make students be able to relate to whatever they are studying, their emotional commitments need to be tapped on. This then leads me to the next idea of how my teaching is going to shape ‘big ideas’.

How My Teaching Shapes Big Ideas: Experiences from an insider

I think it is important for the concepts taught to be both meaningful to the students as well as myself. So what if they know that there is the uneven resource allocation happening in some parts of the world and hence is the cause of the whole ‘big idea’ of uneven development? Are they able to relate to the people in these countries? Hence in order for them to see the relevance of what they are learning, perhaps a project of some sort should be incorporated into the topic of uneven development. So how about getting the students to ‘build’ their own countries from scratch? They get to pre-determine the assets that their country has. Along with development, we will then see which are the countries that are striving well and which are struggling for survival. In so doing, the ‘big idea’ concept of uneven development is not directly taught but rather, students work with knowledge over time. They get to learn from mistakes and improve, get the feel of the positive and negative consequences of their decisions.

Hence all in all, I’m attempting to teach through two perspectives: one is from the outside where students are introduced to the subsidiary ideas of the ‘big idea’ and how they see the linkages between the big and the subsidiary ideas; on the other hand, I would also wish for them to partake from the inside so as to get an insider view of the whole idea of uneven development through their involvement of building their own country.
No doubt the use of ‘big ideas’ are good and should be the basis for planning schemes of work and units of study, I still have some reservations. One of the problems that I foresee is associated with identifying which are the most important ideas. Will the use of ‘big ideas’ oversimplifies the nature of understanding? I don’t think I have an answer for that now so I hope that through experience, I’ll be able to answer my own question.

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