25 Ways to Educate For the Bigger Picture

September 6th, 2015 No Comments Features

educating for the bigger picture

With so much weight being placed on national curriculum standards like the Common Core, many teachers are becoming bogged down in details when what students need most is a big-picture re-haul on learning. We can no longer afford to focus more on individual test questions than on the kind of thinking that goes into answering them. It’s time to start educating for the future— not just the next exam period.

“Although traditional schooling seems to reward detail-focused thinking, active participation in society and the workplace requires big-picture thinking,” writes Kevin Parr for ASCD in Service. “Therefore, it is essential that detail-focused students are encouraged to broaden their perspectives so that they can create real-world solutions for real-world problems.”

A big-picture student will need to know, for example, why they are learning what they are learning.

“Simply telling this student they will need it for next year is just about as good as saying ‘because I said so.’ Instead, helping them see how isolated tasks fit in the real world may help them to be more successful.”

No one would argue against preparing students for future projects and careers, but does big picture learning have an impact on a student’s educational journey from one course to the next? Is it really worth the time to educate for the bigger picture on a daily basis? The latest research says absolutely.

Why the Big Picture Matters

As part of Stanford University’s Project for Education Research that Scales, learning experts from the University of Texas, UPenn, and Stanford are collaborating to measure the impact of big picture thinking on student achievement.

For their first series of tests, the research team investigated a mindset of “self-transcendent purposeful learning” (big picture learning) by surveying 1,364 low-income high-school seniors at 10 urban public schools in California, Texas, Arkansas, and New York. The teenagers sat down at a computer and completed an “academic diligence task,” which involved choosing to do lots of simple, tedious math subtraction problems; watch YouTube video clips; or play Tetris.

According to MindShift’s Ingfei Chen, who spoke with the researchers, “The students with a purposeful-learning attitude (who agreed with socially oriented statements like ‘I want to become an educated citizen that can contribute to society’) scored higher on measures of grit and self-control than classmates who only reported self-oriented motives for learning such as wanting to get a good job or earn more money.” The purposeful learners were also “less likely to succumb to the digital distractions, answering more math problems on the diligence task–and they were more likely to be enrolled in college the following fall.”

In the second round of tests, the team investigated whether having a “sense of purpose” would improve students’ grades in math and science. The researchers asked 338 ninth graders at a middle-class Bay Area high school to log online for a 20-to-30-minute reading and writing exercise. The teenagers read a brief article and specific quotes from other students, all conveying the message that many adolescents work hard in their courses not just to get a good job, but also because they want to achieve “something that matters for the world.”

Study participants then wrote short testimonials to other, future students describing how high school would help them become the kind of person they want to be or make an impact on society. As one teen explained, “I believe learning in school will give me the rudimentary skills to survive in the world. Science will give me a good base for my career in environmental engineering. I want to be able to solve our energy problems.” Another ninth grader wrote that having an education “allows me to form well-supported, well-thought opinions about the world. I will not be able to help anyone without first going to school.”

A few months later, at the end of the grading quarter, the researchers observed positive effects from the intervention, most notably in the weakest students: Underachieving pupils saw their low GPAs go up by 0.2 points.

“That’s a helpful improvement,” said one of the researchers, “because many pivotal educational decisions hang in the balance based on a GPA cutoff. A few tenths of a point can make or break a student’s acceptance into a program or a school, which could in turn affect what type of job she ends up getting and ultimately, the salary she earns.”

What Needs to Change

Jane Gilbert, Professor of Education at the Auckland University of Technology, has spent the past decade studying the future of education, and what it may look like. Her biggest fear is that current educational frameworks aren’t prepared for it, which means teachers and students aren’t either.

“Today’s teachers are told to focus on quantifiable outcomes, rather than looking at the much bigger picture,” Gilbert says. “They’re thinking about how they can help kids get their NCEA levels to get into the university course of their choice and secure a good job. But many of today’s jobs won’t exist in the future because intelligent machines will do that work instead. We’re feeding students this dream: work hard and get your qualifications, go to university and get a nice middle-class job. But it’s just not true; they won’t be able to.”

The New Zealand Ministry of Education’s current target is to realise a future where, by the year 2017, 85 percent of 17-year-olds will have a National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) of Level 2 or above. But Gilbert says this will require more than working toward a quantifiable standard; it will require fostering innovation and creativity as well.

“It sounds good that more kids are getting more qualifications, but what they’re actually learning and what that’s preparing them for is incredibly dubious,” she says. “We have to have people thinking about a future that’s more than two years away, and imagining what people will need to deal with that. We all fund New Zealand’s public education system, and it should be the prime space in which we try to create the kind of society we want in five, 10 or 20 years’ time.”

Gilbert suggests thinking beyond surface features such as educational technology and instead considering “how our learning environments are structured to create inquiring minds.” Without these skills, Gilbert warns, future generations can never hope to solve significant issues such as climate change, social inequality, and the impact of globalisation.

“Future-focused education has become the flavour of the month with concepts like twenty-first century learners and digital natives, but actually, a lot of what’s being said isn’t at all future focused. We’re still working within the same twentieth-century framework. The thinking hasn’t changed. It’s just couching what we’ve already done in much fancier production values. It looks cooler and more digitised, but the underlying educational objectives have not changed.”

So how do we change our thinking, exactly?

“We have to repackage the traditional goal of the education system, which is to build the intellectual capacity to think in ever more complex ways. It’s what Plato argued. It’s all about developing the individual and their thinking capacity. Our education system is meant to serve the collective good and create the kind of society we want to live in.”

Gilbert supports an extensive renovation of the current system, if only because the future demands more innovators and fewer rule-followers.

“Creating a better future for our planet involves opening up our thinking in the present instead of closing it down by simply following pre-existing pathways and rules. In simple terms, if you want to produce innovators—as we claim we want to— everything you would do is the opposite of what we are currently doing in the education system.”

Let’s take a look at a few ways to educate for the bigger picture in your own lessons.

25 Ways to Educate for the Bigger Picture

1. Make assignments and/or projects meaningful.

There’s a time for busy work, but it’s not all the time. Try to make more of your assignments emotionally, morally, or intellectually salient.

2. Tie new lessons in with old lessons.

One of the best ways to help students understand the whole picture: fill in the gaps between old and new.

3. Teach history connectedly, not linearly.

History is not a series of isolated events, so don’t teach it that way. What was happening in Australia during the American Revolution, and vice versa? How are the two histories similar or dissimilar? How do these relationships shed light on current affairs?

4. Relate details to big concepts.

Don’t teach concepts and details separately. They are inextricably related, so make sure you present them that way.

5. Aim for “real learning.”

“Learning is not the product of teaching; learning is the product of the activity of learners.” These are the wise words of John Holt, who wrote about “real learning” in a 1984 article in the magazine Growing Without Schooling.

6. Use technology wisely.

Don’t use tech for the sake of tech. You’ll just bog yourself–and your students–down in details. Use tech to reach a wider audience, for example, or to illustrate big concepts efficiently.

7. Promote a growth mindset.

Abandon the fixed mindset paradigm. Your students will thank you for it.

8. Check your own assumptions at the door.

If you want student to think more openly, you have to think more openly too.

9. Grade problem-solving skills, not just problems.

Too much time is spent grading problems without any regard for the skills used to solve them. Don’t just grade the accuracy of a solution; grade the quality of thinking behind those solutions.

10. Talk openly about the big picture.

Why keep educational goals hidden in a lesson book in the desk drawer? Have a conversation with your students about why the big picture matters.

11. Find out what your students care about.

It doesn’t mean you have to cater your lessons to each student’s personal concerns; it simply means they have thought about what’s important to them and you have shown that you care.

12. Expose students to “big picture” texts.

It’s equally important to practise making meaning out of detail-oriented texts, but don’t forget that you are what you read. There’s nothing wrong with a little BBC for tonight’s assigned reading.

13. Make writing assignments about the big picture.

Even in the context of creative writing, students should be thinking about the larger idea behind their narrative, whether it’s fiction, poetry, or memoir.

14. Connect all lessons to real world situations.

Not an easy task, to be sure, but a worthy one you won’t regret spending the extra time on.

15. Promote not just creativity, but originality.

There’s an important distinction between creativity and innovation, and that distinction is originality. You can be creative without creating something new, but you must create something new if you want to innovate.

16. Present events and situations without passing judgment.

Without realising it, we sometimes colour a topic or concept with judgment before students can form their own opinions about it. Instead of talking about “great inventors in history,” present the inventors and their achievements first, then ask what students think.

17. Let students assess each other’s work.

Nothing could be better “real world” practice than working with other people and offering feedback. Why must you always be the authority on quality student work?

18. Connect your subject to other subjects.

An interdisciplinary lesson is the best kind of lesson. Plus, it will help students remember the material you’re teaching them because they’ll form more associations to serve as retrieval cues.

19. Provide background and context to new topics.

The brain likes being gradually introduced to new concepts. It helps us see how the parts fit together into a whole.

20. Encourage metaphorical thinking.

Nothing represents the relationship between detail and big picture quite like a metaphor. You don’t need to define it as a literary device, either; it’s really just a “thinking device,” and a valuable one at that.

21. Study the nature of cause-and-effect relationships.

We often ask students to identify the cause and effect in a situation, but how frequently do we ask them to analyse different types of cause-and-effect relationships or imagine alternative scenarios?

22. Encourage metacognitive thinking.

Nothing beats myopia like metacognition. When students start thinking about their own thinking, that’s when the big picture learning really begins.

23. Don’t just reference examples; create examples.

The best way to illustrate a big picture concept is to replicate it from beginning to end, right in front of your students. Set aside some time to “show” rather than just “tell” them about important topics.

24. Connect learned material with informed decisions.

When we learn something new, ideally we don’t just throw it into our brains for safe keeping; we use it. Make a point of demonstrating how new information can impact future decisions.

25. Whenever possible, involve the local (or remote) community.

Ultimately, we want students to act, not just learn. Give them the opportunity to practise by involving the local community in projects, or have students connect with experts in another country through Skype. The more “real” the learning feels, the bigger the picture behind it.


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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