Thematic Teaching Puts Effectiveness into a Standards-Based Curriculum by Blynne Froke, Finalist for Target® 2011 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™
As educators, we want the best for our students. We want them to learn skills that will assist them in being successful adults. We have diligently spent years determining what those skills and knowledge bases are and then we devised tests to prove that our students had learned them. As a drive for a standards based curriculum becomes more intense we squeeze instruction into such a lock step routine that more and more students are forced into an at risk designation and our alternative education programs grow. Our need for direct instruction of the standards does not decrease in this situation, indeed it actually increases and the trick then becomes embedding standards into a highly engaging, highly relevant curriculum. We announce a new era of standards-based education and legislate tests to make it official. What sometimes can get lost in our drive to address standards is reason or context.
Our students scream at us “Why do I need to know this?” and our minds reel with the dozens upon dozens of contexts in which we know this specific set of skills matters. In many cases they matter every day. Our students look back at us urgently with that huge WHY written on their faces. Our job is to put these skills, these sets of knowledge into real context. A context that unifies is a theme and it is through thematic teaching that skills gain relevance, that they matter. Why drag our students kicking and screaming through rote procedures that incite rebellion when we can follow them happily through the discovery of relevance?
It is at this point that our discussion turns to methods. The methods of instruction are the professional domain of the teacher. The most successful teachers are those whose passion can carry a group of thirty students down the same road at the same time; the teacher whose passion can provide context and reason for what students usually regard as meaningless habits and tasks. This context is a unifying theme that gathers energy as it builds on itself giving students a reason to gather data; a reason to record information meticulously according to what they had believed were meaningless rules; a reason to perform endless mathematical functions without error. The gathering energy of the theme allows our students to enter a state of flow. Flow is a subjective state of complete involvement, whereby individuals are so involved in an activity that they lose awareness of time and space. (Csikzentmihalyi, 1988) Optimum learning occurs in this state as the student encounters the skills and knowledges embedded in the thematic material. Welcome to the Iditarod.
Thematic teaching is arguably the most powerful way to put these performance standards into focus. Thematic teaching is a proven way of understanding new concepts, of mentally organizing new ideas. (Caine and Caine, 1997) In the fifties boys poured over baseball cards, analyzing a player’s batting average, RBIs and earned run averages gaining an understanding and appreciation of math, in particular, statistics that the threat of next year’s test could never muster.
Research on brain-based teaching shows us that the brain learns and recalls learning through non-linear patterns that emphasize coherence rather than fragmentation. The more teachers make connecting patterns explicit and accessible for students through thematic units, the easier the brain will integrate and retain the new information. (Hart, L.A., 1983) The passionate teacher using a thematic approach can accomplish more toward relevance, and the proficient performance of skills in an afternoon than in a year’s worth of rote skills practice.
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is one of the most compelling themes for teaching available as it embodies the excitement and adventure so seductive to young people; the passion for and care of animals that melts their hearts and a magnitude of organization rivaled only by a full scale military invasion. It engages the student on all three of the measurable levels: social, emotional and cognitive. Alive in every moment are scores of opportunities to allow the passionate teacher to demonstrate and create practice for skills from research, to record-keeping, to communication norms, to the use of the principals of physics to actually WIN a race. Students can understand the generation of weather and using what seemed to them useless mathematical procedures, predict and plan for it’s effects. Triangulation becomes a useful tool for locating individuals and predicting movement and the ability to effectively use technology allows students to put themselves in the front seat of an adventure they will remember for a life time. Students in the Survival Notes Program at LMUSD have increased pass rates on California’s mandated high school exit exam by 30% since the thematic approach to their standards-based curriculum was introduced. The students lucky enough to ride along with a passionate teacher will arrive at testing time with skills firmly in control and an understanding of why these things matter.
Caine and Caine (1997) Unleashing the Power for Perceptual Change: The Potential of Brain-Based Teaching, Alexandria, VA:Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1988) Optimal Experience (pp. 15-35). Cambridge, U.K. : Cambridge University Press
Hart, L.A. (1983) Human Brain and Human Learning, Arizona Books for Teachers.