Choosing a Theme to Guide Curriculum Development

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Using themes to teach isn't a new concept. These days, though, teaching with a central theme is a bit more nuanced than it once was. We'll explain how to center your curriculum on a theme that will get learners thinking more deeply.

Themes - Then and Now

James remembers his days in school. Every fall, the teachers taught a unit on apples, followed by a theme of giving thanks, then some winter stuff, and finally new plants and animals. These were interesting and fun, and he had a great time learning. Why don't teachers use themes anymore?

Actually, teachers still use themes. Now, however, they're a little choosier about what they're focused on. Gone are the days of apples and snowmen. Today's teachers are more interested in creating life-long thinkers who are able to explore and discuss big ideas. They develop themes, the concepts or big ideas learning is centered around, based on a few more criteria. Let's take a look.

Criteria for Choosing Themes

Like we said, James noticed his son doesn't have the fun themes of the past. In fact, his fourth grader is working on a unit called 'Power'. What's interesting about that? How do teachers come up with these ideas?

Actually, a lot of thought goes into the creation of themes. Teachers are now asking students to be metacognitive, or think about their thinking. They want students to deeply understand concepts and be able to discuss and process them. What types of things do they use when choosing themes?

  • Important to humanity

Teachers first zoom in on themes that are important to humanity. In other words, they want students to interact with ideas that mean something to them. James' son is reading the book The Giver as part of the unit on power. The idea and concept of what power actually means and how humans attain it is something even a fourth grader is interested in and can explore and discuss.

  • Cross curricular

Teachers also want themes that can be used in all subject matter, called cross curricular. The unit on power is being explored in literacy with reading The Giver, but also in social studies as students learn about the Civil War. Students are applying science and math concepts to interpret data, such as the number of lives lost in war or the weapons they used.

  • Universal

Finally, teachers choose themes that are understood across time and cultures. Even though the Civil War was fought more than a century ago, students can still relate to feelings of powerlessness. In fact, many other cultures have similar experiences, both past and present. Fighting for one's rights and powers is central to all, no matter when they were born or where they live. Teachers know that these ideas will get students thinking and talking about their thoughts. Yep - they'll be metacognitive.

Teaching with Themes

After a teacher chooses a theme for a unit based on the above criteria there is still important work to do. Now that James understands what's going on with choosing themes he's interested in how they get developed into units. Let's look at the steps in theme development.

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