When forensic science was introduced as an integrative approach to subject learning as a fundamental Widening Participation programme at University College London over ten years ago, thematic and problem-based learning was only just beginning to find footing in British classrooms.
While more ambitious (and perhaps even adventurous) teachers had long used such frameworks to inform their curriculum, thematic teaching was still considered — at the time — an innovative and a somewhat newfangled approach to encouraging cross-curricular understanding that supported real comprehension and growth in all three basic sciences: biology, chemistry and physics.
So why is it especially relevant to consider this model now? We’re currently in an absolute maelstrom of educational and academic change; with intense pressure to ensure that classrooms of students are performing to a prescribed standard that results in high performance on nationwide tests.
It’s forcing some teachers to reconsider the so-called “softer” techniques and is, for better or worse, in some cases inciting a shift to more traditional approaches. We’ve decided it’s more important now than ever before to convince educators not to abandon thematic teaching. It really works, and here’s five good reasons why it does:
1. Thinking outside the box: encouraging understanding beyond the syllabus
Consider this: was there ever a time an issue (perhaps in the arena of current affairs) was raised by a friend or a colleague, to which you hadn’t very much to contribute due to insufficient interest, and therefore knowledge, in that particular area? Once you’d done your homework, so to speak, it probably provoked several questions in your mind that weren’t previously there — simply because you hadn’t had enough material to really examine it.
The involvement of a relevant subject (or theme for our purposes) — drawn into the classroom to help drive a particular unit objective home — has been shown to consistently elicit intriguing questions from enquiring young minds for very much the same reasons. Simply put, entrenching the curriculum firmly within a wider, topical context allows students to look at the same matter in a radically new and different light.
It’s this new lens that allows students to probe the subject with relative ease, and makes thematic teaching (in some cases) more effective than a simple reading assignment.
2. Bringing it closer: giving tough subjects a real-world context
It’s sensible for us to build on this concept: that introducing a theme provides an obvious and clear application for curriculum objectives or subjects that seem nebulous and may as a result, feel overwhelming.
Yet any A-Level biology teacher who has endeavoured to integrate fetal pig dissections with follow-up textbook question realises that the mere discussion of anatomical processes is perhaps less valuable than providing the young scientist with a frame of reference. And so it goes for thematic learning: finding fresh ways of introducing a learning objective or unit by providing a larger scenario that envelopes it is remarkably helpful in reigniting interest in a difficult topic — or even utilising it for a simpler topic so as to keep a student group’s momentum going.
3. Birds of a feather: supporting collaboration and group learning
Thematic learning opens many doors for group activity: Socratic seminars; classroom debates or discussions; practical-based work; and joint projects. Exploring a theme fully might involve tasking students with a cross-curricular activity that eventuates a mutually-beneficial and supportive academic environment.
A strong example lies within our own course listing: the Body Farm single lecture and accompanying practical session. Following the lecture or guided portion of the session, we separate our cohort into two groups and assign each to a “side.” This sets the scene for a debate on the medical ethics involved in building and operating a body farm.
It’s the perfect example of an integrative activity which underpins learning skills (e.g. communication and critical thinking), peppers it with learning objectives from their English A-Level classes, and involves A-Level Biology science.
4. Making it work: including resources not commonly utilised
We’ve found that classrooms have (perhaps in days of yore) invested in several teaching aids that are seldom used. It’s a frequent finding as we step into the shoes of a teacher for a day at the over one-hundred different institutions we’ve visited: a skeleton in the corner; and unused chemistry slime set; or even crime scene tape, found underneath the cupboard in the room’s front standing area. Thematic teaching allows you to make use of these valuable resources in ways that aren’t limiting or formulaic. Build your unit theme with what is already available to you.
5. The hands-on approach: the upside of a strong practical foundation
The backbone of our organisation is practical-based learning: every course we offer has a strong kinesthetic component, and it’s what sets strong education apart from any other approach. We’d recommend: if there’s any scope for introducing an experiment or even a discussion, make sure you write it into your theme, or at least into your unit.
It’s slightly unfortunate that in some cases, we’ll find that the most hands-on subject is often the most taught — and that’s something to rethink with or without a potential thematic learning approach.
Your Turn: Are you a teacher who agrees or disagrees with the points made here? Think there are additional issues or matters at hand that ought to be discussed, and are relevant to this article? Please let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.