A Division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Heinemann

What's the Big Idea?

Question-Driven Units to Motivate Reading, Writing, and Thinking

Jim Burke, Burlingame High School, California
Foreword by Arthur Applebee

ISBN 978-0-325-02157-7 / 0-325-02157-0 / 2010 / 216pp / Paperback
Imprint: Heinemann
Availability: In Stock
Grade Level: 6th - 12th
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Many people have written about how theory (or research) relates to practice; Jim is one of those rare professionals who live the relationship.

Arthur Applebee

NAEP advisor,

Validation committee member for Common Core,

Author of Curriculum as Conversation

Why a book about questions? “Because when students’ instruction is organized around meaningful, clear questions,” writes Jim Burke in What’s the Big Idea? “they understand better, remember longer, and engage much more deeply and for greater periods of time.”

>>> Listen to a podcast where Jim explains how How big questions can engage and motivate students who have grown up digitally.

>>> Listen to a podcast where Jim explains how big questions can help you integrate standards, differentiation, and engagement.

>>> Watch a video message from Jim about the book.

Jim shows how making essential questions the center of your teaching can ease the tension between good teaching and teaching to the test while giving students dependable, transferable tools for reading, writing, thinking, and participating in the real world. Going in depth on his own units for frequently taught books, Jim shows how to plan lessons, units, and even entire courses around big ideas to help students:

  • grapple with content and deepen comprehension through reading, writing, and discussion
  • make learning stick by connecting it to texts, to students’ experiences, and to the world
  • clarify and extend their thinking by learning which questions to ask and when
  • improve school and test performance by honing academic language and skills.

“Although no one thing can ever be the solution to all problems,” Jim writes, “this book demonstrates the ways in which questions can address your concerns and develop in our students the mental acuity and fluency necessary to succeed in school and at work, as well as to achieve a sense of purpose in their personal lives.” The only question now is, Are you ready to change your students’ learning and lives?

Book study groups and professional learning communities, click here to save 15% when you order 15 copies of What's the Big Idea? Save $50.63!

Why Do Questions Matter in Curriculum?: An Introduction
Sample Unit 1: An Intellectual Rite of Passage: Engaging Students with Essential Questions
Sample Unit 2: Spirited Inquiry: Creating Questions to Access a Challenging Text
Sample Unit 3: Natural Curiosity: Using Questions to Explore Relationships
Sample Unit 4: Meaningful Conversations: Essential Questions as a Way into Required Texts
Using Essential Questions to Design Your Own Units: Some Final Thoughts

A. Of Mice and Men: Chapter-by-Chapter Reading Notes and Questions
B. The Academic Essentials Planning Grid
C. The Big Questions
D. Designing a Standards-Based Curriculum
E. Unit Planning Sheet

In Depth

Study Guide

Podcast: How big questions can engage and motivate students who have grown up digitally.

Podcast: How to integrate standards, differentiation, and engagement by designing curriculum around big questions

Introduction: Why Do Questions Matter in Curriculum?
pdf | word Types of Questions

Sample Unit 1: An Intellectual Rite of Passage
pdf | word AP Inquiry Project: Independent Reading Requirement and Spring Final
pdf | word Thesis Generator
pdf | word AP Essay Scoring Rubric
pdf | word AP Follow-up to Inquiry: Final Exam
pdf | word AP Literature Summer Reading

Sample Unit 2: Spirited Inquiry
pdf | word Investigation: Crime and Punishment
pdf | word Assignment Checklist
pdf | word Teaching the Questions Assignment Sheet
pdf | word Teaching with Questions Evaluation Sheet
pdf | word Revising Crime and Punishment Papers

Sample Unit 3: Natural Curiosity
pdf | word Interviewing: An Overview
pdf | word Conversational Roundtable Graphic Organizer
pdf | word Pyramid of Hate
pdf | word Romeo and Juliet Structured Note-taking Handout
pdf | word Decision Tree Graphic Organizer
pdf | word Final Exam: Romeo and Juliet
pdf | word Independent Reading: Life Studies
pdf | word Life Studies Essay
pdf | word Life Studies: Lessons on Life (Prompt)

Sample Unit 4: Meaningful Conversations
pdf | word Event Notes Graphic Organizer
pdf | word Ally Essay Prompt
pdf | word Of Mice and Men Online Socratic Seminar

Final Thoughts: Using Essential Questions to Design Your Own Units
pdf | word Planning Form

pdf | word Appendix A: Of Mice and Men Chapter-by-Chapter Reading Notes and Questions
Label support materials

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Click here for an interview with Jim Burke about What’s the Big Idea? and the English Companion Ning.



Many people have written about how theory (or research) relates to practice; Jim is one of those rare professionals who live the relationship. His book is rich with insights from other scholars and teachers, woven together in a convincing web of argument and insight. But the book is just as rich in classroom experience, using the wisdom of the expert practitioner to focus his arguments on the lives of his students—in all their richness and complexity.

—Arthur Applebee

NAEP advisor

Validation Committee member for Common Core

Author of Curriculum as Conversation


What is especially valuable about What's the Big Idea? is not just the "big ideas"--or guiding questions of the book's title. While questions may help a teacher structure a lesson, the book moves beyond being merely an application of the essential questions pedagogy. The book presents many practical ideas for structuring and sustaining deep levels of student inquiry into whatever the subject of study. And that is the book's grandness--wonderful lessons that help teachers create conditions of deep engagement that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.

In addition to the materials in the book itself, there are helpful links from the book to parallel resources on the publisher's website that make the printing of clear copies of handouts easier.

There are books out there that attempt to frame teaching and learning through one narrow theory or approach.
What's the Big Idea? is different. In it, Jim Burke tells a wonderful story, a story informed by years of teaching, supported by research, and immersed within the individual journeys of his students to explore, learn, and discover

—Daniel E. Sharkovitz, West Tisbury, Massachusetts

March 28, 2010


Jim Burke has done it again--and perhaps better than ever before! What's the Big Idea? Question-Driven Units to Motivate Reading, Writing, and Thinking not only provides a researched foundation for implementing inquiry-based instruction, but it also provides a clear picture of what goes on in Jim's high school English classes every day. Through this book Jim models how to motivate all students to engage in rich literary experiences that are tied to standards-based instruction. The text is laced with his activity handouts (also available online for classroom use), pictures of how he models specific skills, and student work samples.

—Kay Haas, Olathe, Kansas

March 1, 2010

PD Resources From Jim Burke



  • Invite Jim Burke to speak at your school, district, or conference through Heinemann Speakers.

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