• Oli de Botton

Curriculum intent: designing from the big ideas

During the winter term I was doing a maternity cover for a Year 10 class studying Lord of the Flies. I hadn’t read it for years and was rusty. At first I tried to get to grips with the characters and the plot. Jack, Piggy et al. Then some key pillars — the conch, the island. I was skim reading, predicting, racking my brains (skills I had learned over the years). Very quickly I reached a dead end. I got some of the book but was quite far from understanding. In the case of Lord of the Flies (and perhaps in the curriculum more generally) I needed to explore the big ideas at play and the key facts in tandem. How can you begin to understand Jack’s descent into evil, for example, without appreciating that Golding is writing during a post-Holocaust period of introspection? How can you assess the book’s descriptions of nature, without getting inside the workings of symbolism in the concrete and the abstract?

My teaching — as rusty as my understanding of the novel — had to (co)construct learning so students had big ideas to think with at the same time as they were exploring the facts. Zoom in and zoom out.

As if one was needed, I got a further realisation of the complexity of teaching.

But what are the big ideas?

The big ideas are access points into a ‘subjective’ truth about the world. They have extraordinary explanatory power and in some subjects act as ‘threshold concepts’ — once got they irreversibly change our perspective. The aesthetic in art, the nature of power and its distribution in History, the dynamics of the ensemble in music, fate and the immortality in the classics. Big ideas are often in tension, particularly in the social sciences. Structuralism (‘£350 million for the NHS’) versus universalism (‘open borders’) explains a lot. (For more on this see my slides on zooming in and out of Brexit at this year’s Great Oracy Exhibition.) By grappling with these big ideas students will have some understanding of the ways of the world. Primed they may then be able to shape how things work.

But don’t you need the facts first before you go onto the big ideas?

Asking big questions from big ideas is the place to start. It’s motivational, challenging and promotes relevance (evidence suggests this is particularly important for students with low-confidence.) Big ideas speak to the purpose of each discipline and its evolving discourse (see Applebee on curriculum as conversation for more how on we induct students into a conversation about what teach). Of course students can’t grasp them in their entirety straight away (can any of us?) but that’s the point. The scheme of learning, the project, the lesson, the five, seven, fourteen year curriculum will take students on a journey. ‘All material is made up of very small particles’;‘objects can affect other objects at distance’; ‘organisms are organised on a cellular basis.’ Some of the biggest ideas in science will take years to fully grasp — that makes sense given they help explain how our very complex world functions. The aim is to give children digestible glimpses of the key concepts in different ways and at different moments in their education (aka ‘teaching’). It doesn’t make sense to hide them from view.

Does this work for all ages?

There are bigger and smaller ideas at play in all subjects. These are supported by facts and skills. Some skills are subject specific e.g. scientific enquiry, and some are more transferable e.g. exploratory talk. At certain points different big ideas, facts and skills are emphasised and embedded. Mastering phonics is essential in Reception and Year 1 — as are the skills and knowledge associated with counting and number. But the curriculum can also cope with themes in literature and problem solving at these stages too. With careful scaffolding, children can begin to appreciate different concepts. Over time understanding of these concepts deepens and expand.

But this really doesn’t work for my subject.

There is always a danger with curriculum framing that genericism hinders the value of subjects in and of themselves. However, without a common school language you can struggle to share and critique across the community of experts. Equally curriculum areas have a responsibility to be clear in summary and so accessible to non-specialists and enabling of interdisciplinary work. ‘Design from the big ideas, facts and skills’ is the dictum in our teaching and learning framework and I am hoping this is broad enough to capture what we mean and narrow enough to enable sharing.

But some hard cases.

  • Does Maths have big ideas? There is certainly a distinction between the concrete and abstract, the latter representing a higher degree of understanding. An interesting blog on this concrete/abstract distinction here. Maths also has a unique take on problem solving which is both subject specific and transferable in parts. Maths may do more zooming in at first but there is a definitely a wide lens too.

  • Aren’t all the big ideas in English (and Drama) values like empathy? Possibly but the beauty of English literature, at least, is it explores these ‘values’ through plays, novels and poems — a rich context to enter into a dialogue with the big ideas. You can also view texts through different big idea lenses (think Macbeth through feminism etc.)

  • And foreign languages? Well like learning English early on, children need some basic foundations, but as they progress the conceptual framework needed to understand literature and culture remain.

What are the implications of all this?

At School 21 we are beginning to make more coherent the 4–18 curriculum of the ‘head’. (We have a broad goal of educating the ‘head’, ‘heart’ and ‘hand’). Starting this term we are bringing together subject teams from across the institution to see if we can make sense of it all. My hope is this will build on the work of Music, Spanish and PE who already work 4–18. In each case we are looking for the broad ‘big ideas’ and then crucially how these are accessed at different points.

By the end of the process we want to be able to answer the following questions:

What are the big ideas that the subject communities in School 21 teach from?What are the facts and skills necessary to support a full understanding of those big ideas?How can we present these ideas succintly so they can be digested across the institution?What are the pedagogical implications of teaching in this way? How is grappling promoted by the dialogic classroom?

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