What’s the Big Idea?
I was visiting one of the graduates of our theological college some eight years after he had completed his studies. It was fascinating to observe that in the course of a 60-minute conversation, he made clear reference to five specific course themes—three from courses he took with me and two from a colleague's courses. It was not simply the references but the way in which they were shaped and used that fascinated me; the essence was almost verbatim, but the application was local and contextual to his own situation. The question then was what key factors contributed to this sort of long-term and formational learning? I would suggest two in particular: (1) the creation and repetition of “big ideas” and (2) significance.
I was visiting one of the graduates of our theological college some eight years after he had completed his studies. It was fascinating to observe that in the course of a 60-minute conversation, he made clear reference to five specific course themes—three from courses he took with me and two from a colleague's courses.
It was not simply the references but the way in which they were shaped and used that fascinated me; the essence was almost verbatim, but the application was local and contextual to his own situation. That my former student remembered was, of course, very gratifying. After all, genuine learning is not just repeated on examinations at the end of a course but remains and has impact several years after a course has been completed, and this student had clearly learned something of value.
The question then was what key factors contributed to this sort of long-term and formational learning? I would suggest two in particular: (1) the creation and repetition of “big ideas” and (2) significance.
If an instructor has clarified the half dozen most important big ideas in his or her field of study, these ideas will naturally emerge repeatedly in and out of the classroom. The teacher's clear passion for these big ideas and their repetition create a psychological construct in students' minds that is more likely to lead to long-term learning.
For example, in the field of education there are key themes that run through my teaching to which I find myself returning over and over again. Among these are education is about learning, not teaching; holistic learning embraces the affective, behavioral, and cognitive domains (the ABC of learning); less is more (when we teach less content but go deeper in reflection on that content, more learning takes place); and a journey of 50 miles begins with one step. It was elements from this repertoire that the graduate referenced and applied in his conversation.
My colleague was referenced with two of his key themes—all theology is contextual, and the church is a missional community. In each case the idea is not simply mentioned once in passing but reinforced repeatedly in a variety of courses and in out-of-class conversations so that many students come to associate these big ideas with us. Over time many students come to embrace some of these ideas themselves.
One of the key elements of these big ideas is that they are shaped in a simple and memorable form—preferably as a short declarative sentence. My own experience is that the simpler the expression of a profound idea, the more likely it will be remembered. For example, among my several big ideas, the two that habitually remain in the minds of my students are education is about learning, not teaching (often remembered simply as learning, not teaching) and less is more. The brevity of these ideas no doubt contributes to memory and to their being embraced. Although not every field of study invites big ideas, many do. Instructors who are serious about long-term learning do well to consider what might be the half dozen big ideas in their field of learning and to develop each idea into a simple statement that can be reinforced regularly.
However, simply because an instructor believes an idea is of value does not guarantee that long-term learning will take place. Ultimately students will make an effort to remember material only if they believe that it is important enough to do so. Dee Fink in his well-known work on significant learning experiences describes two characteristics that make learning significant: (a) the material results in significant changes in the students, changes that continue after the course is over and even after the students have graduated; and (b) what the students learn has a high potential for being of value in their lives after the course by enhancing how they live and preparing them to work with others.
Unfortunately for most students, the only level of significance they are ever given is “It's going to be in the exam.” They make the effort to engage with the material only for as long as it is significant—until the exam. After that, the material no longer matters, and what has been learned quickly drops out of memory. Long-term learning will occur only if the student considers the material to have significance for life. Consequently, serious instructors need to help students make connections between the big ideas and their own personal lives.
I use case studies extensively in my own teaching, and each of the big ideas my former student remembered had been explicated through case studies that were specifically designed to approximate the life experiences of students. As my student talked, I was able to see thinking patterns comparable to those evidenced in class discussion of the case studies. I'm not recommending that everyone use case studies. They don't work well in every field. The key is not a method but the connection between the idea and the life of the student.
Education is about learning, not teaching, and meaningful learning is that which remains and impacts students' lives many years after graduation. Shaping evocative big ideas that students see as significant for their own lives is more likely to lead to this sort of long-term learning.
Contact Perry Shaw at PShaw@abtslebanon.org