Thematic instruction is the coordination of a curriculum around large-scale “themes.” Thematic instruction integrates basic disciplines like reading, math, and science with the exploration of a broad subject, such as communities, rain forests, river basins, the use of energy, and so on.
Thematic instruction is based on the idea that people acquire knowledge best when learning in the context of a comprehensive “whole,” and when they can connect what they’re learning to reality. Thematic instruction seeks to put the teaching of cognitive skills such as reading, mathematics, science, and writing in the relation of a real-world subject that is both distinct enough to be practical, and broad enough to allow creative exploration.
Thematic instruction usually occurs within an entire grade level of students. All subjects teachers teaching in that particular grade work together as a team to design curriculum, teaching methods, and assessment around a preselected theme. Typical steps include:
Themes often involve a large, integrated system (such as a city, an ecosystem, and so on) or a broad concept (such as democracy, weather, and so on). Instructors often strive to connect the theme to the students’ everyday life.
The teachers involved must develop the learning objectives of their core curriculum (both process skills and content knowledge) around the theme. In the study of a river basin, for instance, math might involve calculating water flow and volume; social studies could look at the nature of river communities; science might study phenomena like weather and floods; and literature could study books and novels that focus on rivers, such as the works of Mark Twain. The initial design requires considerable work on the part of teachers.
This usually involves making changes to the class schedule, combining hours normally devoted to specific topics, organizing field trips, teaching in teams, bringing in outside experts, and so on.
Because thematic instruction is often project-oriented, it frequently involves students giving collective presentations to the rest of the sections of that grade. Plus, students commonly create extensive visual displays.