Pedagogy Postcard #8: Big Picture – Small Picture:

A series of short posts about specific elements of teaching practice that I think are effective and make life interesting. Some are based on my own lessons and others are borrowed from lessons I’ve observed.


 (NB, I’m a stickler for saying ‘dissect’ as in disperse, disappear and dissipate; not rhyming with bisect. That’s the true meaning.  We do not ‘die-sect’ a heart or ‘die-sect’ a poem; we ‘dis -sect’ them. Thank you. )

When I encounter a new idea or fact I always ask myself ‘What does this have to do with anything? How does it link to what I already know? Where does fit it to the big scheme of things?’ As a student I always wanted to know the course structure and the scale of each module so I could gauge the depth needed for each component of learning; I need the big picture in order to make sense of the details. I think a lot of learners are similar and learning itself is the same.

What does this mean in practice?  At a course level, it’s obvious enough. Students benefit from seeing an overview of everything they’re going to learn so that they can see where they’re going. Here’s an example of a GCSE English course outline:

English GCSE Course Outline.
English GCSE Course Outline.

This kind of big picture is common enough but I’d say it’s not universal.  My Year 9 co-construction class wanted to make a plan like this very early on as I profiled in this post.  Constructing the big picture lesson by lesson was an early part of the process:

The 9M Masterplan for Physics and Chemistry
The 9M Masterplan for Physics and Chemistry


However, Big Picture thinking is even more important at a pedagogical level.  In a physics lesson this week, for example, I made an error. I was trying to save time by cutting out some background, introducing the idea of the Boltzmann factor, cutting to the chase with using the equation. Disaster. Without sufficient context, the numbers didn’t make sense; students had no intuition for whether the answers should be going up and down or by how much…there was perplexed confusion all round. I had to start again the next lesson. My mistake was to miss out the big picture.

In history, this is very obviously linked to timelines and chronology.  For example, what was the significance of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846?  It’s impossible to understand the details and the nuances of the motivations of the politicians of the day without taking a much broader view: Britain’s industrial revolution; the development of global trade; the workings of parliament and the origins of political allegiance; the social context of early 19th Century Britain.   There are lots of specific details than can be disorientating and overwhelming unless they are framed in a wider context.  For some, simply getting their head around when 1846 was would be a challenge in terms of the scale of time and some recognisable reference points that help them to connect to that era.

In English, the analysis of literary texts should be approached within a context where the general appreciation of each work as a whole entity has value.  We love books and poems for how they make us think and feel, first and foremost; we study them afterwards.   It pays to know the whole book, the whole play or the full text of a poem before ripping into the analysis.  That’s where the joy of reading lies. Sometimes, premature analysis can kill the passion for a text rather than enhancing it.

As I’ve tried to illustrate in my ‘Punter’s Guide to Essay Writing’ post, this also applies to essays themselves.  In comparing two poems, two sources or two perspectives, there is enormous value in the broad comparison of each one taken as a whole as well as looking at the structural components of that comparison – such as the language or sentence structure of a poem.  In the analogy, Rooney vs Aguero is just one detail compared to the overview of United vs City.

In exam preparation terms,  I find it always pays to give students a sense of the full scope of a topic. In Maths, for example, the big picture of A* topics can give students a sense of where they need to focus:

A* Maths topic overview
A* Maths topic overview

Another important reason to keep the ‘whole’ together before dissecting it is to maintain a level of challenge.  For example, you might want students to consider the issues surrounding the plan for a new hydro-electric power station, looking at case-study in China.  Some students will gain enormously from the challenge of devising their own parameters for the analysis.  They’ll see it whole and break it down themselves.  If you do this for them, by giving them a structure (environmental impact, economic benefits, political factors and so on) then they lose an opportunity to think for themselves.  It diminishes the level of challenge.

Similarly with maths problems.  It pays for students to struggle a bit, not knowing exactly where to begin before you give them the clues and walk them through the steps.

What is the value of d? What angle does it make with each side?
What is the value of d? What angle does it make with each side?

This is the way to teach problem solving, giving away the clues only to those that absolutely need them.







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