Steps Toward a Big Idea Syllabus

  1. Go to lunch with students. Or just talk to them. Discover who they are and remind yourself what it is to be a student.  It won’t take long to remember that they are wrestling with some really fundamental questions about life.  Who am I?  What am I going to do?  Am I going to make it?  How do I find meaning and significance in life?
  2. Dwell in some deep thought for awhile on who they need to become to find answers to these questions – find their passion, contribute to the world, be good global citizens, and live a happy life (or whatever other grand goals you may hope for them that light you up and made you want to become a teacher.)  What characteristics, strengths, capacities, and skills do you think they need to develop?
  3. Look at your syllabus, line by line, and ask yourself, “How does this help them get there?”
    My syllabus was a simple list of topics taken from a textbook.  I had work to do.
  4. Find the meaning between the lines.  If you are like me, you don’t need to start all over.  These questions have been poking at you in the back of your mind for years and day by day you have found ways to make the content you put on the syllabus meaningful to them and relevant to the core goals you have now made explicit in Step 2.  Go line by line and identify the big meaningful idea that relates back to those goals.  If there is no big idea, consider replacing that day’s content with something else.
  5. Create a journey or storyline.  Write out the big ideas and look at how they relate to one another.  Is there an obvious way to make them into a sequence that can take the student on a journey of transformation?   Or a way in which they can speak to each other, creating an engaging story with dramatic tension, conflict, epiphany and resolution?
  6. Make the journey explicit to your students.  As Neil Postman points out in the End of Education, “to become a different person because of something you have learned – to appropriate an insight, a concept, a vision, so that your world is altered  … you need a reason.”  Give your students that reason.  Here’s how my syllabus turned out:Syllabus
  7. Get so excited about the journey that you create a ridiculously over-hyped trailer to get them pumped up about it.

tldr version: Start with Who not What:  “Who are my students and who do they need to become?” rather than “What content should I cover?”


5 comments: On Steps Toward a Big Idea Syllabus

  • I was literally in the middle of writing my syllabus with a completely new curriculum. Struggled with what am I missing? And then “POW”, I hit your site while taking a break by surfing the web. Timing was so perfect it’s spooky. Great post! And thank you for sharing!!! (^_^)

  • Pingback: “The Syllabus” – Trailer for Introduction to Cultural Anthropology - Digital Ethnography ()

  • WOW! Am a teacher myself and new to Anthropology. If I could take your course!!!
    What you’re doing it truly amazing! Thanks A LOT for sharing.

  • Hello,
    This video is being used in an Anthropology course at UHCL and has a student with a hearing impairment. I need a transcript or a video with captions of “Steps Toward a Big Idea Syllabus” in order to make this accessible for them. I am the Accessibility Specialist at UHCL (University of Houston-Clear Lake) Thanks, Barbara

    • Imagine never being bored again. It’s not just about getting a job. It’s about learning all kinds of stuff so the world feels alive. And you might actually purposefully not open your phone everytime you have a moment because you just want to be with the world. Let’s put that as the ultimate goal of the class. So you got this syllabus, and this syllabus is a little different. I’m trying to create a journey for you. It’s not just a series of topics, it’s a real journey. We study all these people around the world and we think, “Wow!” There are 9 big ideas that I think can change your life.

      People are different. These differences represent the vast range of human potential and possibility. Our assumptions, beliefs, values, ideas, ideals – even our abilities – are largely a product of our culture. We can respond to such differences with hate or ignorance, or we can choose to open up to them and ask questions we have never considered before. When we open up to such questions, we put ourselves in touch with our higher nature. It was asking questions, making connections, and trying new things that brought us down from the trees, and took us to the moon. It is not easy to see our assumptions. Our most basic assumptions are embedded in the basic elements of our everyday lives (our language, our routines and habits, our technologies). We create our tools and then our tools create us. Most of what we take as “reality” is a cultural construction (“real”-ized through our unseen, unexamined assumptions of what is right, true, or possible.) We fail to examine our assumptions not just because they are hard to see, but also because they are safe and comfortable. They allow us to live with the flattering illusion that “I am the center of the universe, and what matters are my immediate needs and desires.” Our failure to move beyond such a view has led to the tragedy of our times: that we are more connected than ever, yet feel and act more disconnected. Memorizing these ideas is easy. Living them takes a lifetime of practice. Fortunately the heroes of all time have walked before us. They show us the path. They show us that collectively, we make the world. Understanding how we make the world – how it could be made or understood differently – is the road toward realizing our full human potential. It is the road to true freedom.

Comments are closed.

Site Footer

Sliding Sidebar

About Me

About Me

University Distinguished Teaching Scholar and Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University.

Dubbed “the prophet of an education revolution” by the Kansas City Star and “the explainer” by Wired Magazine, Wesch is a recipient of the highly coveted “US Professor of the Year” Award from the Carnegie Foundation. After two years studying the implications of writing on a remote indigenous culture in the rain forest of Papua New Guinea, he turned his attention to the effects of social media and digital technology on global society and education. His videos on culture, technology, education, and information have been viewed over 20 million times, translated in over 20 languages, and are frequently featured at international film festivals and major academic conferences worldwide. Wesch has won several major awards for his work, including a Wired Magazine Rave Award, the John Culkin Award for Outstanding Praxis in Media Ecology, and he was named an Emerging Explorer by National Geographic.

Subscribe by Email