Big Questions, Big Understandings, and Big Ideas in the Classroom

Big questions do more than (re)introduce wonder and excitement to students. The ultimate goal of big questions is for learners to develop big ideas, big answers, big understandings, and big learning.

By: Tim Monreal

In his book Futurewise, David Perkins (2014) explains the concept of big questions:

Big questions address particular themes about humanity, our world, and our universe. There are also very general big questions that find significance in almost any context. The child’s ‘why’ is prelude to the ‘why’ of a scientist, artist, or historian. Likewise, the child’s ‘how’ looks toward the engineer or politician or manufacturer. The broadly exploratory question ‘what’s there’ touches everything from the interior of cells to the interiors of black holes. (p. 74)

Big questions can be formed by the teacher, the student, or a combination of both. Big questions result from inquiry, wonder, brainstorm, previous knowledge, and sheer curiosity. Big questions are open by design and rarely have a ‘correct’ answer. They also provide a wonderful container and context for serious content and learning.

What do big questions look like? Perkins offers numerous examples. Some big questions are applicable across multiple disciplines.

  • “What if not?”
  • “What’s the real problem?”
  • “What are the opportunities?”

Some big questions have personal meaning for the learner. Perkins (2014) calls these questions live hypotheses.“Live hypotheses are possibilities a person finds genuinely at issue for himself or herself and worth engaging” (p. 83). Although these questions will differ from learner to learner, some examples may include:

  • “Is [] ethical or non-ethical?”
  • “What is really true about []?”
  • “Why does [] matter?”
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Other big questions may take the shape of lesson/unit essential questions. Big questions can also be more practical, more solution oriented. Big questions engage students in looking at the world with wonder, curiosity, desire, and passion. Big questions look to intrinsically motivate students to struggle, to question, and to take deep dives into content. Even though big questions seem vague and nebulous, they actually provide a rich context and relevance to learning. Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey share a similar sentiment in Make Learning Personal (2015), “It is about how we help learners develop questions about the information they read or hear, about inquiring minds that wonder, discover, question, and expand their thinking” (p. 53).

Big questions do more than (re)introduce wonder and excitement to students. The ultimate goal of big questions is for learners to develop big ideas, big answers, big understandings, and big learning. Big questions can also serve as a jumping point for further and deeper learning, the rabbit hole. “Such understandings are answers, lifeworthy answers, the largest and the most important answers we have for the lives learners are likely to live, big in insight, action, ethics, and opportunity” (Perkins, 2014, p.92).

Big questions empower teachers to embrace a pedagogy of ideas, and for learners to be empowered by their understanding of big ideas. The love of rich, big ideas is desperately needed in our schools. Seymour Papert (2000) writes, “the most neglected big idea is the very idea of bigness of ideas. I want to argue that the neglect of big ideas — or rather of the bigness of ideas — has become pervasive in the culture of School to the point where it dominates thinking about the content of what schools teach, as well as thinking about how to run them” (p. 720).

Big understandings and ideas can be applied across the curriculum and transferred to multiple disciplines. For example, look closely at Newton’s famous Force = (Mass)(Acceleration) equation. For most people, this equation is limited to physics and, possibly, mathematics. Understanding of this concept could be transferred to social studies, natural sciences, and economics. Think of this big question, “Is F=MA (or rewritten as A=F/M) true in multiple contexts?” In other words, “Is F = MA a social studies equation, a technology equation, a philosophical question? The big understandings inherent in authentically investigating big questions can lead to student gains in insight, action, ethics, and opportunity (Perkins, 2014, p. 230).

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Big questions appeal to my inner learner. It is the way I love to think about the world. Big questions make life interesting, personal, and fulfilling. They also motivate me to learn, to try new things, and to engage my natural curiosity. As I think about the next school year, I want to leave room (and plenty of it) for my students to engage in big questions. I want my students to wonder, to admire, and to be passionate. Whether it be through discussion, projects, or nestled within lessons, big questions have a place in the classroom. Our students deserve to engage the world in this way. I want to live in a world where any young person can create knowledge and change through big questions, big understandings, and big ideas.

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