Chris Lawrence says the hardest thing about theme-based learning is “having the courage to give it a go.” She says it’s natural to worry, “‘Am I spending enough time on maths in this theme?’ and ‘What if the theme runs away from what I want to do or impose?’” But for teachers who are encouraged to see themselves as learning managers, the theme-based approach creates an environment where students acquire a taste for lifelong learning. As they become more involved in how and what they study, children also become more interested in learning.
“You move away from the idea of filling up vessels with facts,” Chris says. “For some teachers it’s hard to take that jump, but with supportive colleagues and a supportive system they soon learn to fly – and so do the students – and even if the structure is not supportive, you can try it out in small ways. You find the fun and the success – and then start flying the flag for thematic teaching and learning!”
Research into how the brain works and the psychology of learning shows that learning is a process of integration. When we see how facts and ideas connect with one another across subjects, we are constructing meaning. When we’re able to communicate that meaning, the learning is further reinforced. This is why theme-based learning is so effective.
Chris offers five reasons to “give it a go” and experiment with theme-based learning:
1. It’s more fun to teach and learn using a theme.
•Chris believes fun is a key ingredient in learning. “If children are happy, they are confident, and so are teachers. This magic combination makes teaching and learning so much more effective. Children become inspired and wider-thinking. Teachers may still be exhausted, but now it’s an exhaustion that makes them feel fulfilled and valued,” she says.
2. It harnesses curiosity to motivate learning.
•“To me it’s the most natural way to learn,” says Chris. “A child or adult finds something that intrigues them, maybe a foreign stamp or a stone. They want to know more and so they start on a journey of collecting ideas and information. With the stamp, the child finds out about its source, the geography of its people, the music of their homeland, the art work within it. They investigate its richness, draw its setting, sing its songs, write letters to find out more, investigate in books and on the internet. The learning is never sluggish, but is vibrant and exciting.”
3. Educators transition to being facilitators of learning.
•“The teacher is no longer a provider of facts copied from the board and learned for homework,” Chris says. “Instead, because the boundaries of exploration are far wider than the teacher can predict, he or she becomes a learning manager.” A learning manager guides children while keeping open the opportunity for self-guided discovery.
4. It teaches children how to learn.
•With theme-based learning, children are thinking for themselves, following the thread of a topic to explore and discover more. Chris says, “It gives them a taste of moving from one related area to another related area and one builds on another. It’s a way of learning throughout life.”
5. It draws in the child’s family.
•Parents more easily become partners in learning around a theme. “The family, with its own interests and views, can more easily become involved, thus broadening the spectrum of the whole experience,” Chris says. “When forced into the confines of a secondary school timetable, I still used a thematic approach in a once-a-week history lesson that grew from an old stone I found with the date 1694 on it. As a class, we invented an English family living at the time. On Parent-Teacher Night, I was told by one couple, ‘We love Tuesday teatime because we find out what has happened with the 1694 family, and when we are out and about we look for more information and connections.’”
The Challenge is to Change the way we teach!
Theme-based learning – or the practice of integrating curriculum areas around a topic – helps learning become more relevant for students. But it can also be challenging for educators. Some are accustomed to prescriptive lessons broken up over a heavily scheduled day, and relaxing that control can make them feel anxious.
Chris Lawrence, a learning consultant and literacy adviser, has taught students ranging in age from 3 to 22. She studied and worked in England but also spent five years working for the Ministry of Education in the Commonwealth of Dominica in the West Indies, where she guided teachers toward theme-based teaching and learning, and discovered its ready adaptability to poorly resourced schools. (Click here to read about “Bottle Village,” her inspiration for a theme that found its way into many Dominica classrooms).