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Monday, February 20, 2017

Thematic Units. Why They Work So Well

Whenever you are building a new curriculum, or even refining or enhancing an existing curriculum / thematic unit, it’s always a good idea to do your homework first.  What exactly does the research say about your idea?  Is there any research on the topic to begin with?  How much bang for your buck can you get out of the unit if you base it on proven research?  These are all great questions to ask yourself as you start the process.

According to Dr. Geoff Ward of James Cook University, thematic units to refer to any approach that integrated learning across the curriculum with some organizing connection that give a sense of unity to the study.  The key here is integrated.  When you can integrate material across a wide span of the curriculum and give students an all-around sense of fulfillment on a topic that is being studied, you can instantly build excitement and interest above and beyond the average, everyday lesson.  When students get excited to hear multiple teachers talking about a single topic with different projects (however mini or major) that will be worked on, students can all of a sudden get wrapped up in everything and anything ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, Native American, or what have you.  They will be so immersed in the unit from multiple angles that they will walk away with a solid understanding that will take the level of instruction higher than any other method.

What’s interesting is that the idea of a cross-curricular thematic unit isn’t all that new.  As a matter of fact, it’s been around for several decades.  What makes it so new and so fresh for teachers now is the technology integration component which brings a whole new realm of possibilities available to students that just didn’t exist previously. 

MaryEllen Vogt, an Associate Professor of Education at California State University, Long Beach, points out nine areas of the curriculum that benefits students and states that cross-curricular thematic instruction “allows students to contemplate problems and situations that reflect the world as they know it.”  These nine areas are:

     Acquire, communicate, and investigate worthwhile knowledge in depth
     Integrate and enrich the language processes of reading, writing, listening, speaking, and thinking
     Practice reading different kinds of materials for varied purposes
     Use prior knowledge of the world and past experiences with language and text to create relationships among various sources of information
     Make choices, interact, collaborate, and cooperate
     Apply what they learn in meaningful and "real world" contexts
     Informally assess their understanding and application of what they are learning
     Participate and learn, regardless of ability, level of language development, or background
     Learn effectively in self-contained, multi-age, or departmental classrooms

Simply put, Common Core...Common Core...and yes, Common Core!   What’s even more fascinating is that very often in the past, thematic units were usually only meant for diverse learners who had the natural ability to be pushed to think on a higher level (aka your talented and gifted students).  However, today, thematic units are being used across the board to create meaningful and diverse learning for all types of students and on all levels.  Technology has certainly aided in that department, because, after all, how many kids do you know that aren’t attracted to some form of technology?

If you’re looking for professional articles and research regarding thematic units, a very good place to start is The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD: ). This membership-based nonprofit organization allows you to sign up for plenty of research-based information about curriculum and development.  You can even sign up for email delivery of current articles and information.  Take it up a notch and you can stay informed through social media by following them on Twitter at (@ascd) and receive a continuous feed of valuable resources.  As a matter of fact, social media has become one of the best resources for up-to-date and ever-changing information and resources (not to mention, it’s instant and mobile). Using social media can certainly be a fantastic one-stop-shop for everything Common Core, thematic, cutting edge, or technology-integrated material. 

You can also perform your own basic search online for ‘research based curriculum and development’ or ‘research based thematic unit creation’ for access to a wealth of information that will not only spark your creative juices, but will also give you the data you’re looking for with regard to small group work, students who are English Language Learners, students who have special needs or who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), students who can benefit from enrichment, etc.

To recap, thematic units work for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, students make connections by immersing themselves into a topic.  They read, write, create, design, and synthesize.  How much more Common Core can you get?  Furthermore, it allows students to learn in more than one way, which lends to Marzano-based research which assesses student outcomes and touches upon differentiation on multiple levels. 

On the teacher side of thematic units, the actual planning as well as teaching of material feels more fun to use, and not so much work.  Teachers can be as creative as they would like and can grab a student’s interests by engaging them and inspiring them, all the while connecting multiple areas of the Common Core State Standards.  It is without question that teacher excitement is transferred to student learning which benefits everyone...and that’s just the start!  Just wait until well-thought out units come to a close and students are producing high-level products to showcase what they have accomplished and what they have learned.

Have you ever seen those commercials selling a new piece of workout equipment? Or a personal trainer at the gym modeling a full body workout routine? The concept of course, is how to maximize your production while minimizing the time it takes to get there. When done properly, a full body workout can do that. You end up using more energy from more parts of your body, all being worked in unison. If you’ve ever tried this you know that you end up using (and training) muscles you never knew you had. Working individual body parts in isolation takes a lot more time; and can stagnate, as you tend to do the same routines over and over. You most likely are rarely working at full capacity, or working out those new muscles. You may end up thinking, “I’m working out a lot, but I’m not really seeing the results I wanted.” This is why (when implemented properly), a well done thematic unit can be as successful as a great full body workout. You maximize the output from your students, while minimizing the time it would take to try to teach every subject and skill in isolation. Moreover, the lessons will make more sense to the students. This will become evident when they make connections regarding how each new piece is an important part of the overall unit, and relates to what they’ve already learned.

The Finland Connection

Finland has long been regarded as a paragon for educational standards and their continued success has made the country a model that others have sought to learn from and emulate. In March of 2015  Richard Garner writing for The Independent wrote an article titled, “Finland schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with‘topics’ as country reforms its education system.”

It might be surprising that a country so revered for its educational success is considering making changes or perhaps it is their willingness to change with the times and remain on the cutting edge of new ideas, that is the testament to their success.

In the article Garner explains that “subject specific lessons- an hour of history in the morning, an hour of geography in the afternoon- are already being phased out for 16 year-olds. They are being replaced by what the Finns call ‘Phenomenon’ teaching- or teaching by topic”

This is precisely what we have been doing at our school with the implementation of thematic units. In the article, Helsinki’s education manager Marjo Kyllonen is quoted as saying, “We really need a rethinking of our system, so it prepares our children for the future with the skills that are needed for today and tomorrow.” She goes on to say, “There are schools that are teaching in the old fashioned way which was a benefit in the beginning of the 1990s- but the needs are not the same and we need something fit for the 21st century.”

Garner explains how “Ms Kyllonen has been advocating a ‘co-teaching’ approach to lesson planning, with input from more than one subject specialist.” Once again, this ties in perfectly to what we have been able to institute in our school. While anything new takes some getting used to at first, the transition has been remarkably smooth. Even colleagues who might normally shy away from new tactics and even subtle changes have embraced the thematic unit concept and soon realized its value.

In the article Pasi Silander, Helsinki’s development manager states, “We have really changed the mindset. It is quite difficult to get teachers to start and take the first step...but teachers who have taken to the new approach say they can’t go back.” We couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly, and we are convinced you’ll feel the same way after you’ve tried our thematic approach.

Another article in March of 2015 titled “Goodbye, Math andHistory: Finland Wants to Abandon Teaching Subjects at School” written by KabirChibber also describes this exciting new innovation in pedagogy. Chibber explains, “The Finns are teaching phenomena- such as the European Union, which encompasses learning languages, history, politics, and geography. No more of an hour of history followed by an hour of chemistry. The idea aims to eliminate one of the biggest gripes of students everywhere: ‘what is the point of learning this?’ Now, each subject is anchored to the reason for learning it.”

When I read this article I had what Oprah calls an “Aha!” moment. This is what we’ve been doing. This is why we’ve been doing it. It made perfect sense to us, but now a country that has long been a paragon for educational success had endorsed the model.

Adam Hyman, author of Scholastic's Managing the Digital Classroom, has often said how the 21st century student has technology ingrained in every aspect of his/her learning and in the article, Pasi Silander (Helsinki’s development manager) agrees: “The world has changed with the spread of technology and many old ways of teaching have no practical purpose.” This is why we feel that thematic units (through technology integration) is not just the educational model of the future, but indeed the present as well. Again, because of the age of technology that we now see taking place, the model of the future has been molded in part because of that same technology that is available to both teachers and students.  Chibber ends the article by questioning “will the rest of the world follow the Finns lead?” We are proud to say, we already have been. 

Want to know more?  Get our eBook: Teaching Common Core Thematic Units Through Technology Integration and learn how to effectively create Common Core aligned thematic units for your students through technology integration and other curriculum areas.

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