"Big Ideas" or "Themes" for Science Education?

R. Timothy Smith -- March 2001


Many educators recommend that public school instruction should focus more on helping students come to understand the "big ideas" in content areas and less on attending to memorizing particular facts or vocabulary.   Unfortunately, the notion of "big ideas" is generally ill-defined, and the phrase gets used in multiple and often conflicting ways among educators and discipline specialists.

If an effort to get a better handle on the use of this notion -- especially with respect to science teaching and learning -- I reviewed the five documents that arguably offer the most important guidance for K-12 science teaching, learning, and curriculum development in Michigan to see how they each define or use the notion of "big ideas":

Surprisingly, none of the above five documents -- with the exception of "Appendix B" in MEGOSE* -- makes use explicitly of the notion of "big ideas."   Nonetheless, each of these documents does emphasize the importance of teaching and learning a powerful set of ideas that are used in the intellectual work both of science and of other disciplines.   Four of the five documents refer to these powerful, potentially discipline-independent ideas as "themes."   (Unlike its predecessors, the NSES refers to these kinds of ideas as "unifying concepts and processes.")   Note that "themes" as used here is not the same as the less rigorous but common reference to the kinds of supposedly integrated, theme-based units some teachers use that actually are based around a single topic (e.g., teddy bears, penguins, or apples).

The table below lists these various potentially discipline-independent "themes" and attempts to link the same or similar ideas across the various documents.



Appendix B:
Connecting Themes

(pp. 145-146)

II.1-MS#3   &
Thematic Ideas

(p. 5)

Chapter 11:
Common Themes

(pp. 165-181)

Chapter 11:
Common Themes

(pp. 261-279)

Unifying Concepts
and Processes

(pp. 104-105,

systems systems-subsystems systems systems systems, order, and organization
structure and function form and function
models feedback models models models evidence, models, and explanation
constancy mathematical constancy constancy







constancy, and


patterns of change  
scale scale scale scale  
evolution adaptation     evolution and equilibrium
energy conservation      


  * The one instance where MEGOSE does use the phrase "big ideas" -- and does so in a manner that I find to be somewhat ambiguous -- occurs in "Appendix B: Connecting Themes" (pp. 145-146):

"There exists throughout the scientific enterprise major themes that demonstrate continuity of concepts and habits of mind within the science disciplines.   Seven themes are identified in the K-12 Michigan Science Objectives:   1) systems; 2) models; 3) constancy; 4) patterns of change; 5) evolution; 6) scale; and 7) energy.   These themes provide a framework for organizing lesson units to show connection and understanding of "big ideas" in science.   Six of the seven themes featured in the objectives are consistent with those of Project 2061 Science For All Americans.   The use of connecting themes allows for the development of an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum design.   It promotes the development and teaching of more than one science content area while emphasizing a major theme that naturally occurs across science disciplines."

"A thematic presentation allows students to see the connections of related facts and concepts throughout the science disciplines.   It also provides curriculum designers with a framework for the development of a thematically structured curriculum."


Last updated:   20041210 by RTSmith