Big Ideas: Seeing the Forest through the Trees

Written by Megan Davenport, Atlas Team | Updated by Kelly McCurdy, Atlas Team

Writing curriculum using a backward design framework begins with analyzing standards to determine how to organize and address them all throughout the duration of the course. This is a significant task and a challenge that takes a lot of careful thought. The end result is a pacing guide that outlines what needs to be taught and when. At this point, I always feel really excited that I have taken on this difficult task and succeeded. I now know what I will be teaching and when. But then I review my list and it hits me: I have so much to cover- how do I see the forest through the trees? How do I capture the big picture of a unit without getting stuck on each individual standard? How do I create a rich context for the standards that will help my students truly retain and develop a lasting understanding of what I’m teaching?

Big Ideas (Enduring Understandings) should be:

Overarching These statements should include major ideas or concepts
Recurring The ideas should be broad and significant enough that they are addressed many times throughout a course, and across multiple grade levels
Valuable They should provide value beyond the K-12 classroom

Once I grab a cup of tea and reflect upon my newly-grouped standards, I am ready to write the Big Ideas (or Enduring Understandings) by examining the overarching purpose for the unit.

Questions to consider:

  • Why have I chosen to put these particular standards together?
  • What is the common thread?
  • What do I really want my students to remember at the end of this unit?
  • Why should this information matter for my students today?
  • Why should this information matter for my students ten years from now?

Taking the time to distill the purpose, focus, and value of the unit can make the rest of the planning more targeted and instruction more effective. After coming up with content, student objectives, assessments, and learning experiences, the writer has a foundation to build everything upon: Does this activity reinforce the purpose of this unit? If the answer is yes, then you are well on your way! Keep going and check out our Big Idea examples and resources below:

How can Big Ideas be used by a teacher and students?

Teachers should use the Big Ideas to define the purpose and focus for a unit. When writing the rest of the unit, teachers should be consistently revisiting the Big Ideas to check for intra-unit alignment and focus. Students might also look at the Big Ideas at the beginning of, and throughout, a unit to focus their learning. When a unit is over, a teacher may ask the students to outline the key information that they learned as one of many possible assessments or learning experiences that reinforce the big ideas of the unit.

Tip #1: Review the standards you have chosen for your unit to get them fresh in your mind. Next, without looking at the standards, ask yourself “Why am I teaching this unit? What do students really need to get out of it?”. The answers to these questions are the Big Ideas of the unit.

Tip#2: Try jotting down your Big Ideas on a piece of scratch paper before looking at the full unit planner.

Tip #3: Don’t stress about the wording. When we look at sample Big Ideas, the wording often looks beautiful and poetic. It is the ideas that matter most, so get them down and revise later if needed.


Social Studies
  • Whenever major historical events happen, such as wars, there is never a single, easily explained cause, but rather a complex series of causes.
  • When we research, we need to be aware of who wrote the information and the potential bias of each source.
  • Numbers can be much smaller than the number “1”, so we must use fractions and decimals to be more precise.
  • Graphs help us represent numerical information in a visual way.
  • Literature can transcend place and time to be relevant for readers decades after the work is written.
  • The intended audience and author’s purpose for writing should impact the tone and writing style of the author.
  • Models of the earth, sun, and moon can be used to represent, describe, and predict events on earth.
  • Living things are made up of parts so small that they are not visible to the human eye.
The Arts
  • We must respect other artists and try to understand their intentions when reviewing, evaluating, and appreciating art.
  • The arts reflect the cultural trends and historical events of a given place and time.
World Languages
  • We must appreciate cultural differences when learning a new language.
  • Patterns exist in every language, though we must also know the exceptions to these patterns.