In the last blog I talked about inquiry-based learning: the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. This blog gets into the ‘how’.

Big picture curriculum

Designing learning for any classroom is a complex business as there’s much to be taken into account. Teachers must attend to the required Australian Curriculum while at the same time responding to their students’ current understandings and skills, as well as their interests and aspirations. Teaching is as much about designing learning as it is about leading it in the classroom. My work supports teachers to answer three key questions:

  1. What do my learners need to understand and be able to do?
  2. How will my learners demonstrate what they understand and can do in relation to the targeted curriculum?
  3. How will I support the range of learners in my class to complete assessment tasks as successfully as possible?

(Read more about these in learning ajency resource, Three key Qs; see box below re: QCAA resources which align with these Three key Qs.)

The teachers and schools with whom I’m collaborating are doing a brilliant job to ensure that there’s alignment among the responses to the Three key Qs. This means, of course, that the understandings and skills we need to teach are assessed and that the teaching and learning going on in the classroom is focused on the successful completion of the assessment tasks.

Keep focused with BIG questions

One very powerful way to keep learners (and you, the teacher) focused on the curriculum intent, the assessment task/s and the learning they’re engaged in is to use a BIG question to drive the teaching/learning unit.

Basically a BIG Q is one which focuses the learner on the deep knowledge and understandings and skills that are valued (and assessed) in the unit. I like to talk about BIG Qs that are conceptual and connected: conceptual in that they involve higher-order thinking and connected in relation to learners’ lives and the world.

In a classroom in which the teacher is comfortable and competent in relation to inquiry-based learning—a form of indirect teaching—the BIG question for a unit might be collaboratively developed. Teachers should feel at ease, however, to design a BIG question that brings the curriculum intent and the assessment tasks to life—until they feel the circumstances are right for them to collaborate with learners on this.

Examples of BIG questions

Check out the range of questions below.

Foundation* History: Could your grandmother have planted this tree?
Year 1 Science: Could we live under water?
Year 2 Science: Why don’t worms have wings?
Year 3 Geography: What’s my favourite place and how can I describe it to a friend?
Year 4 History: Who owns Australia?
Year 5 History: Should people who commit crimes be given a second chance?
Year 6 Science: Who made the mess? [forensic science]
Year 7 Science: What sorts of energy could reduce our global footprints?
Year 8 Mathematics: How can we use linear functions to select the best phone plan?
Year 9 History: Was life great during the Industrial Revolution?
Year 10 English: What would you do for love? [Romeo and Juliet study]

* Prep in Queensland

Sub-Qs addressing directly the Australian Curriculum

All of the above BIG questions address the knowledge, understandings and skills throughout the relevant learning area/subject and year level. They are designed to engage and motivate students to learn and achieve. For each BIG question, teachers develop (or collaborate with learners to develop) a set of sub-Qs that ensure that the relevant portion of the achievement standard and the corresponding content descriptions are targeted. For example, sub-Qs appropriate for the Year 5 history BIG question might include:

  • Who were the convicts sent to Australia?
  • Why were they sent to Australia?
  • How did the convict population influence the growth of the colony and later the nation of Australia?
  • What approaches were used to deal with people who committed crimes?
  • Who were the winners and the losers of each approach?

The sub-Qs show that the targeted curriculum is addressed with student focus captured via a BIG question that is both ‘conceptual’ and ‘connected’. The BIG question requires higher-order thinking and it is connected to today’s world.

BTW, someone—ahead of a conference presentation I was doing—asked me if ‘BIG’ written in uppercase was an acronym. I replied that it wasn’t—it was a reminder to flag the importance of BIG questions driving units. Such questions had to be personally meaningful for learners and meaningful for society. That’s BIG!

What are you teaching next? What BIG Q could keep your learners (and you) focused on the deep knowledge and understandings and key skills your learners need to demonstrate?

Templates and exemplars

The Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority has readily available resources containing templates and exemplars for such whole school planning, year level planning and unit planning on its website at These resources are built on teachers using five planning processes including:

  1. identifying the curriculum
  2. developing assessment
  3. sequencing the learning and teaching
  4. making judgments
  5. using feedback

Want to continue to talk about this topic? If so, then go to the Forum!