Generalizations, big ideas, abstractions, universal themes… they are designed to help our gifted students learn. However, what I didn’t realize was that they would help me teach!
Universal themes are ways to connect ideas across all disciplines. My district rotated them annually so students worked with a new one each year (and teachers had some variety as well). Universal themes are highly abstract, one-word concepts that include:
Use only one per year and see how much of your content you can connect through the lens of a Universal Theme.
Within each universal theme are generalizations or big ideas. Working with power as a theme, students could investigate ideas such as:
- Power can be used or abused.
- Power comes in many forms.
- Power may be seen or unseen.
Here’s a list of universal themes and generalizations from the depth and complexity framework.
Introducing a universal theme is an excellent use of the first days of school.
One year, I tried attaching one generalization to each subjects as a way of focusing students’ learning. I’ve used:
- Ancient Civilizations: “Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty and dies with chaos.” – Will Durant (thanks to Araceli for this quote)
- Earth Science: “Power may be seen or unseen.”
- Writing: “Good writing is clear, concise, and creative.”
Although I expected these generalizations to benefit my students, they also improved my own planning. When writing a lesson, I knew to focus my instruction towards these each big idea. A lesson on plate tectonics, for example, centered on how some of the power of an earthquake can be seen, while some cannot.
These generalizations became an assessment tool as well. Students wrote an essay proving or disproving whether “power can be seen or unseen” with regards to the electromagnetic spectrum and another for food webs. They tried to disprove that Ancient Egypt followed the Durant quote and graphed the changes of order, chaos, and liberty over time.
Where To Find Ideas
I heard the Will Durant quote from another teacher at my school. The power generalization came from a Universal Theme training I attended. And I just made up my writing theme!
If you’re stuck, try adapting:
- Famous quotes
- Combinations of depth and complexity
Wherever you find your material, make sure the big ideas truly apply to each subject. If it’s a good fit, your teaching will become more efficient and you won’t spin your wheels trying to make it work.
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