To facilitate learning, most of the instruction should relate to big ideas. Big ideas are the ideas that summarize content, are applicable again and again, can generate predictions and hypothesis, can be used to help structure the details of content, and help in remembering and reconstructing through inference content details. Most of the instruction should revolve around the big ideas. (Crawford 2004)
Students should be able to fluently articulate the knowledge they learn so that the knowledge can be used in higher-order activities, such as essays, comparisons, application, synthesis, evaluation, and the like. (Crawford 2004)
Here's an example of a big idea from a middle school history textbook that precedes the teaching of the Dred Scott decision.
The sectional disputes about slavery that began during the Constitutional Convention ended with two compromises. One compromise was that the Constitution said that slaves were to be counted for both representation in Congress and as property, but at three-fifths value. The other compromise kept Congress from stopping the slave trade until 1808, but allowed Congress Control over other aspects of trade. The northern and southern states had equal numbers of representatives in the Constitutional Convention and chose to reach a compromise. When each side is evenly matched, there is a balance of power. An example of balance of power is when two teams have the same number of players and the players have the same skill level. If one team gets a chance to put one extra-good player into the game, then the balance of power is upset and that team will probably win. That team will dominate.
University of Oregon (1995), Understanding U.S. History: Volume 1—Through the Civil War, Chapter 13: The Road to the Civil War pp. 318- 328.
The big idea of the unit is balance of power which gives the student something to think about as the material is learned and by doing so helps him integrate the material being learned.
By using the big idea of Balance of Power, the congressional compromises of the period, the Missouri compromise and the compromise of 1850, can be learned with some meaning, rather than as a mere parade of facts. For, example, here is how the Missouri compromise might be taught:
In 1819, the balance of power in the Senate was equal with 11 free states and 11 slave states. Adding new slave or free states to the United states could be thought of as adding extra players to a game—if one side got too many new players, the balance of power would shift to that side. But adding new players was exactly what was about to happen to the U.S. because the country was growing. It looked as if the balance of power might change.
In 1819, the people of the Missouri Territory asked to join the United States as a state. A territory was a region that was a part of the United States but not yet a state. Most of the white people living in Missouri wanted slavery. Northern Senators were against adding Missouri as a state because then there would be more slave states than free states with representation in the Senate. In 1819, the northern senators would not agree to let the South have a majority in the Senate. They argued for months against adding the Missouri Territory as a slave state.
After several months of debate, the people of Maine, which had been part of the state of Massachusetts, asked to join the United States as a free state. This opened the way for a compromise to be worked out. Henry Clay, a senator from Kentucky, proposed the compromise plan, called the Missouri Compromise. Henry Clay was one of the War Hawks who boasted before the War of 1812 that the Kentucky militia could conquer Canada. He also worked out a compromise for the Nullification Crisis.
Clay’s idea was to admit both states into the United States. One state, Maine, was free state which did not allow slavery. The other state, Missouri, did allow slavery. That maintained the balance of power.
The Missouri Compromise was a plan that drew a line across the Louisiana Purchase territory, south of which slavery would be allowed. Slavery would be outlawed in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase lands north of the imaginary line. The Missouri Compromise Line was drawn at the southern boundary of Missouri. Areas south of the Missouri Compromise line could become slaveholding states, but the land north of the line was to remain free from slavery. In 1820, the United States had not acquired the land west of the Louisiana Purchase. At the time it was passed, the Missouri Compromise established rules for all the land in the United States.
(Understanding U.S. History)
Now, see if you can answer the following question to see f you understand balance of power and how it affects the admission of territories as states.
Q: Arkansas was the next state to ask to join the United States. Arkansas was below the line of the Missouri Compromise, so it would be added as a slave state. What factors might influence Arkansas' admission as a state?
The same big idea can get you through the admission of Florida and Iowa, the election of President Polk, the concept of Manifest Destiny, the admission of California, New Mexico, Texas and the Oregon Territory, the Compromise of 1850, the South's attempt at seceding, the concept of popular sovereignty, and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Laws which culminate in the end of the balance of power era:
Although the Compromise of 1850 solved the problem of the southern states seceding from the United States, the solution was only temporary. Enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law and allowing popular sovereignty to decide about slavery only made the issues about slavery more difficult for Congress to solve. The ability of the Congress, the political parties, and the country as a whole to make any more compromises on the issue of slavery was coming to an end.
Until 1850, a balance of power between slave states and free states had existed. That balance of power resulted in compromises being made between the North and the South for many years. In the 1850s, three factors ended the ability of Congress to make compromises about slavery: (1) the idea of popular sovereignty, which began with the Compromise of 1850; (2) the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which led to violence and 200 deaths in Kansas; and (3) the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857.
(Understanding U.S. History)
The Dred Scott decision wasn't important because of the specific holding with respect to the slave Dred Scott (though I'm sure it was important to him), but was important becuase it eliminated Congress' ability to maintain the delicate balance of power that had existed and threatened to allow the unhindered growth of slavery:
The Dred Scott decision. The third factor that completely ended the ability of Congress to compromise on the issue of slavery was an 1857 Supreme Court ruling on slavery. The Court ruled that slaves had no right to sue in federal court because African Americans could not become citizens of the United States. The Supreme Court ruled that someone who owned slaves could keep slaves in any federal territory. The decision basically made slavery legal in any territory. The Supreme Court also ruled that there was nothing in the Constitution that allowed the federal Congress to outlaw slavery in any territory, and that only states could decide for themselves about slavery. That decision was the end of Congress’ ability to make compromises about slavery because Congress couldn’t pass any laws that limited slavery.
The Chief Justice who wrote the court’s decision was a southern Democrat who had always supported slavery. He felt that the decision in the Dred Scott case would end the debate over the expansion of slavery. He thought that once the court had decided to protect the property rights of slaveholders, the country would accept this decision. He was mistaken.
(Understanding U.S. History)
The challenge for techers is to teach all this material so that the students know it well enough to explain it without the referring to the textbook. This is the first prerequisite for knowledge to be used flexibly in higher order activities such as essays, comparisons, application, synthesis, evaluation, and the like.
There is no golden road to learning. Deep understanding in a domain (such as pre-civil war history) is not going to happen in a fact vacuum. You need something to think about first, before you can think about it deeply, i.e., understand the abstract functional relationships inherent in the material. If the student's "inquiry" hasn't led the student to learning the facts, at least temporarily, deep undersatnding isn't going to follow. This is what happened to the SLA student.