Beautiful Questions and Big Ideas

This is the first of several posts summarizing ideas from this year’s jmUDESIGN, the annual Backward Design institute offered by JMU’s Center for Faculty Innovation (CFI).

Start at the end

The first stage of backward design is to figure out where you want to go, but not in the way that most faculty think. If you asked most faculty what this would mean, they would probably answer that they start with the content they need to cover and the objectives they have been given by their department, accrediting body, or professional society. This is completely the WRONG thing to do.

The problem with this approach is that it embodies a content-centric teaching philosophy, in contrast to a learner-centered philosophy. One of the key changes to make when adopting a learner-centered teaching philosophy is to reconsider the role of the content. The content is the medium, not the goal.

Instead of starting with the content, the goal of a learner-centered teacher practicing backward design is to consider where you want the students to end up. You need to craft a vision of how you want you students to change, because that is ultimately the goal: Learning is a change in the functional capacity of the students. In any class, students will change and they will learn. But that change and learning might not be the type you intend. In backward design, then, you start by crafting a vision of what you want that change to be. Once that is done, you can move on to aligning your objectives and practices with your vision.

Big Ideas and Beautiful Questions

To get started with crafting your vision, you start the backward design process by crafting a 5 Year Dream, which is an explicit articulation of what you see for yourself and your students 5 years after the course. When articulating your 5 Year Dream, you should consider what you want your students to know, be able to do, and find value in. For instance, in my OS course, my 5 Year Dream includes students appreciating and applying principles of locality and separation of implementation from interface.

Once your 5 Year Dream is established, you should consider how it relates to your course. There are two separate ways of framing this discussion, and you should use one that works for you. One approach is to define Beautiful Questions. A beautiful question is one that leads students to deep learning and encourages the development of connections between content and life. Here are some examples of beautiful questions from various disciplines (some are directly from this year’s jmUDESIGN):

  • Biology: How do tanning beds increase one’s risk of cancer? How has antibacterial soap contributed to deaths caused by superbugs like MRSA? Why is direct access to genetic testing causing some families to fall apart?
  • Social work and sociology: Is there a right way to “do family?” Why are some communities and individuals more likely to relapse into drug addiction?
  • Political science: How will clashes between state and federal laws about marijuana impact cancer patients? Why did the Supreme Court determine that same sex marriage bans violate the Constitution?

As an alternative to beautiful questions, another approach is to identify Big Ideas and Enduring Understandings. A big idea is a major overarching theme or concept, whereas enduring understandings are statements that you would be embarrassed if your students missed it. Many faculty in STEM fields find this framework very appealing. Here are some examples:

  • Big Idea: The theory of evolution. Enduring Understanding: Variations in species have emerged through the natural selection resulting from millions of years of reproduction.
  • Big Idea: Force. Enduring Understanding: The force applied on an object is measured by the mass of the object and the acceleration it experiences (F = ma).
  • Big Idea: Virtual memory. Enduring Understanding: An OS provides processes with the illusion of a contiguous memory space even though data is actually stored in many separate places.


For more information on Beautiful Questions and Big Ideas, as well as getting started with learner-centered teaching, I recommend the following books:


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