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Social Studies Big Ideas
Big ideas are powerful, long-lasting concepts or generalizations that you can organize facts around when you prepare lessons. Students who are challenged with Big Ideas are more likely to become engaged in the learning process and they will consider the new ideas and examine their beliefs. Although Big Ideas are all around us, planned teaching of Big Ideas requires insight from teachers. For example, when you are planning a lesson on the American Revolution, think about what you want your students to get out of it. There are some facts and chronologies to add to their Cultural Literacy and social studies knowledge. But what Big Idea should they take away from a lesson on the American Revolution? Some suggestions are what patriotism is, whether the bravery of the Founders is an admirable quality and what its limits are, and whether the British practiced fairness toward the colonists. You could ask your students whether there are two sides to every story, or what it would take for someone to revolt against his or her country today? Students get excited thinking about and discussing bravery, fairness, and cowardice. When they are emotionally engaged, facts and knowledge have greater meaning and purpose.
Big Ideas are not limited to character and citizenship education. The invention of longitude and latitude, the concepts of supply and demand, and how humans developed skin color can, in the hands of creative teacher, become the kind of Big Ideas that will resonate with students if teachers begin their lesson planning by discovering the Big Idea in their content.
Information Knowledge (sometimes referred to in the academic literature as Propositional Knowledge, Declarative Knowledge, or just plain content) typically includes the facts, concepts, and generalizations that students acquire in social studies.
Facts should be used as (1) building blocks to a concept, or (2) examples of a concept. They are used to acquire concepts and generalizations that last a lifetime, long after the specific facts themselves have been forgotten. They also serve another purpose. Information Knowledge is central to a shared culture. For example, when Americans having lunch in a café in the Middle East suddenly realize that it is July 4, they share not only a common memory of parades, fireworks, baseball games, and barbecues, but also an appreciation of their ancestors’ struggle for freedom and democracy. These affective responses to a date on the calendar are the glue that binds people into a culture. This concept is collectively referred to as Cultural Literacy. Additional ideas associated with Cultural Literacy can be found at http://www.coreknowledge.org/.
Concepts are mental labels, abstractions. The simplest of concepts are often the ideas expressed in terms like congress, Indian (or First American), supply, equality, prime minister, or longitude. Concepts are defined by their attributes. The more attributes a concept has, the more complex and difficult it is to define a universal meaning. The concept of democracy or equal rights has many different interpretations; 1776 is ordinarily a date, but in American culture it is laden with affective attributes of freedom and other associations, giving it concept-like attributes. From a teacher’s perspective, the focus of instruction should be big ideas, generalizations, and concepts. As an example, any set of topics feature concepts that are held in common, such as the American Revolution, French Revolution, the Spartacus revolt, and the like. A teacher can craft lessons to help turn what may be thought of as mundane information into Big Ideas. In the case of the concept revolution, the universal concept would be the right to freedom or willingness to give up one’s life for a belief. Such universal concepts can bridge age, gender, and cultural differences; enable an individual to transfer meaning by crafting facts into a meaningful framework; connect with students’ experiences; and provide a framework to remember facts.
Generalizations express relationships between and among facts and concepts. As an example, in a lesson a teacher might compare the reasons why people in Mexico invented sombreros and people in Russia wear fur “diplomat hats” with ear flaps. The generalization that students should come to know is that climate is a major determinant of local dress. Generalizations are often referred to as principles, theories, laws, and conclusions. “An alligator ripped all three men apart” is a factual statement with an implicit generalization: “Alligators are dangerous.” This kind of statement appeals to our affective domain and creates vivid images in our mind’s eye. A less melodramatic statement would be an explicit generalization: “Crocodilian reptiles are carnivorous.” If your intent were to communicate to students a fear of alligators, the first statement would make your point. If you were teaching about reptiles, the latter would be more appropriate, although you might use the former if it is a headline in the newspaper and you want an attention getter to start a lesson plan. Generalizations convey a great deal of information in a brief, summary form. In addition to being sometimes too simplistic, however, generalizations can be dangerous if the teacher unintentionally or intentionally leaves out some information that may be essential to students’ understanding. Telling students a nonfact-based generalization like, “President Johnson was a great president,” has a very different learning objective than a fact-based statement like, “President Johnson passed more civil rights legislation than any other president,” or “President Johnson increased America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.” With generalizations, teachers should expect to also provide students with evidence by elaborating on the related concepts and their underlying facts with additional clarification. A rich vocabulary is crucial to learning knowledge. Social studies Information Knowledge provides vocabulary (IK vocabulary) that must used both to understand one topic and to apply it as a universal concept. As an example, bicameral legislature is important to understand the topic of U.S. government, but it also should be retained for learning about other types of government at a later time. In addition, social studies Procedural Knowledge vocabulary (PK vocabulary), such as multiple causation or cultural diffusion, represents universal concepts about how to think about Information Knowledge.
Because there is SO MUCH "content" in social studies, the emphasis is on procedural knowledge, i.e. how to think about what the content is telling us. John Dewey made the distinction between a record of knowledge (Information Knowledge) and knowledge (both Information and Procedural Knowledge). In history, for example, to know the dates of important battles in the Civil War is very different from being able to explain how the chronology and outcomes of each battle influenced the outcome of the war. Information Knowledge is knowing what; Procedural Knowledge is knowing how (i.e., how to make sense of Information Knowledge). The purpose of Procedural Knowledge is to empower people to set aside bias and subjectivity in order to engage in impartial analysis of new knowledge for the sake of more objective ideas. By doing so, students not only acquire unbiased knowledge but also gain new insights into themselves and can become better human beings.
Generic Procedural Knowledge. The terms Thinking Skills and Critical Thinking are often used to describe generic Procedural Knowledge that can be used in all disciplines, whereas Modes of Reasoning (see the following section) are typically ways of thinking or working with Information Knowledge within a specific domain (social studies) or discipline (history, geography, etc.). The kinds of Procedural Knowledge that cut across the domains are outlined in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956). Evaluation, synthesis, analysis, application, understanding, and knowledge are the six categories, with the first four being the higher-level cognitive skills, i.e. Procedural Knowledge. Each of the six domains can be applied to a subject area. If you type “Bloom’s Taxonomy” and “Social Studies” into a Web search engine, you will find a number of sites that explain the taxonomy and show how it may be applied to social studies. The State of Alaska Department of Education provides an informative table of the skills as they apply to social studies at http://www.educ.state.ak.us/tls/frameworks/sstudies/part3a1.htm. The Critical Thinking Community has a list the “35 Dimensions of Critical Thought” at http://criticalthinking.org/resources/TRK12-strategy-list.shtml#s17. These generic thinking skills become a disposition that can be used with all disciplines and are used extensively in the social studies disciplines
Social Studies Procedural Knowledge. Thinking skills at the domain and discipline levels are often referred to as modes of reasoning, executive processes, and habits of mind. Knowing how to draw inferences and conclusions from a primary document is a mode of reasoning in history, determining climate based on location is an executive process in geography, and examining a chart relating crime and age for author bias is a habit of mind. The focus of instruction in social studies at all grade levels is on transferring to students the executive processes that allow them to be lifelong learners with social studies content. In social studies instruction, Information and Procedural Knowledge cannot be separated. By analogy, if Information Knowledge is the cake’s ingredients, then Procedural Knowledge makes up the directions to be followed and the skills needed to make the cake. When they have mastered both these types of knowledge, students should be able to bake any cake by themselves in the future.
An idea is a thought or initial opinion that a person formulates on the basis of his or her unique accumulation of Information and Procedural Knowledge. Ideas may be correct or incorrect; all ideas are only partially formed and, therefore, imperfect. Adults regularly say, “The sun always rises in the east” because that’s how it looks from our point of view, but at one time this was also taken as scientifically correct. Today we “know” this idea is not correct: the sun doesn't rise; rather, the earth rotates. Similarly, children’s versions of ideas are not as well formed as adults’, but that does not make them incorrect: We often refer to these as naïve ideas or theories. To some extent, we all have naïve ideas or theories our entire lives; our job as teachers is simply to provide grade-appropriate ideas. Some ideas, however, are wrong. The teacher, through dialogue with students, can convert both wrong ideas and naïve ideas into more advanced, sophisticated understanding. Ideas may be thought of as propositions communicated with the expectation that others will reflect on them and consider adopting them into their personal schemas. In a classroom, however, everyone brings his or her unique ideas based on unique personal experiences. We usually assume that when students say something they believe it, but sometimes children state ideas in social studies to get attention, to challenge a teacher’s authority, to persuade others to adopt the idea, or to check their own thinking about a tentative belief.
A belief is an idea that is transformed because we embrace it, value it, and believe it to be correct. Beliefs become part of our persona and can be difficult to dislodge because we need to have a sufficient ego to be open to new ideas that might become new beliefs. Giving up a belief can be painful, but it is made easier if teachers can (1) provide a bridge from one belief to another potential belief by introducing alternative ideas, and (2) demonstrate through their personal behavior openness to new ideas and tolerance for different beliefs and ambiguity
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