Big Idea is often the first prompt of Depth and Complexity that I introduce to students, along with Details. That does not mean, however, that Big Idea is basic or less sophisticated than the other prompts.
After years of implementing Depth and Complexity, I realized that I was seriously under-utilizing Big Idea. I was accepting Big Ideas from my students that were far below their ability. I’d allow Big Ideas that were too vague, too obvious, or even (gulp) incomplete sentences.
So here are a few ways to raise your game with the Big Idea.
Big Ideas Aren’t Merely “Topics”
The first thing to check for is: are my students just writing out topics rather than actual Big Ideas. Let me illustrate.
- ❌ “Earthquakes” (merely a topic, not a big idea)
- ✅ “Earthquakes are caused by the movement of tectonic plates”
- ✅ “Earthquakes are the biggest threat facing San Francisco”
- ✅ “The key to earthquake survival is preparation.”
Notice that the last three all say something about the topic. They are Big Ideas! Another example:
- ❌ The Giving Tree (merely the title of a book, not a big idea)
- ✅ “The Giving Tree’s message is to beware giving too much”
- ✅ “The Giving Tree is the greatest children’s book ever written.”
- ✅ “The Giving Tree is about the dangers of chasing material possessions.”
The last three are all debatable, non-trivial, and most importantly complete sentences! One more:
- ❌ The American Revolution (again, it’s the topic not a big idea)
- ✅ “Yorktown was the most important battle of the revolution”
- ✅ “George Washington’s indecision actually won the American Revolution”
- ✅ “Britain should have attempted to work with the Americans rather than fight against them.”
Big Idea Criteria
Nowadays, I’d tell students that a 🏛️ Big Idea should:
- be a complete sentence — not a word or two
- be a statement about the topic — not the topic itself * not be obvious: “The sun is hot” is probably not a great Big Idea!
- be something another person could disagree with * require evidence (which can come in the form of 🌻 Details)
When I see a student write “🏛️ George Washington’s indecision actually won the American Revolution” I’m super interested to hear their evidence. I might totally disagree. And this is definitely not a trivial statement. That’s a Big Idea.
The next time you see the Big Idea icon next to an incomplete sentence, pull the emergency break and fix things – it’s likely you’re seeing a topic rather than a true Big Idea.