What is Theme Based Curriculum?

Paul Romani (M.Ed.)

With so many methods of teaching that schools offer, it might be confusing to know which methods are more effective.

Luckily, with a theme-based curriculum, students experience an almost unlimited variety of amazing real-life topics, which makes learning much more fun and challenging.

Let’s talk about theme-based learning, what it offers and why it is almost certainly the best method of education for your child.

What Is Theme-Based Learning?

Theme-based learning is a method of education that makes perfect sense. At the same time, it’s obviously very different to how you and I learned, so it’s natural to compare one with the other to make sense of it.

Essentially, theme-based learning treats learning very differently from traditional subject-based learning.

Firstly, theme-based learning considers the application of academic skills as a necessity. Language arts, math and the fine arts are skills that allow us to understand and express thoughts; they can be applied to any theme regardless of the topic.

Writing, reading, and drawing for the sake of it isn’t something you’ll find in a theme-based classroom. They are all done for a reason.

In contrast, subject-based learning generally falls into the trap of treating education as learning for the sake of learning, something to acquire for taking tests.

While there are different degrees to which you can immerse your class in a theme (themes within subjects – themes across separate subjects – etc.), true theme-based learning completely eliminates the concepts of ‘subjects’.

A school using this level of theme-based learning will make no mention of ‘math’ or ‘science’ on their daily schedule, because those skills are embedded into the themes.

Secondly, in theme-based learning, education should have real-world application in the way that the learning takes place. This means that a child is empowered to use their education to make real-life changes to themselves, their community and perhaps even the world.

Lastly, theme-based learning treats factual knowledge as interconnected and complex. If you want to study about environmental pollution, you have to consider not just scientific matters, but also social studies (i.e. issues related to people).

Theme-Based Learning at Preschool, Elementary & High School

Preschool teachers use theme-based learning almost all of the time. Nobody questions this, and in fact parents acknowledge how much their kids love studying this way.

However, elementary and high school teachers and parents globally have been conditioned to think it is normal to separate knowledge and skills into subjects the moment children enter kindergarten or grade 1. Just because something is the way that it is at the moment, does not mean its natural or the right approach; this applies to the persistence of subject-based classes.

This subject-based mentality is beginning to change with the popularity of a theme-based school in Vancouver, B.C., changes in the B.C. curriculum, and changes in the Finnish education system.

Now, it’s possible to apply a theme-based approach all the way to a Grade 12 level. Even universities are now exploring interdisciplinary approaches.

Benefits of Theme-Based Learning

Research into the psychology of learning suggests that learning is a process of integration.

When students are able to see how certain facts and ideas connect with other subjects, we are adding meaning to the curriculum.

When those students become able to communicate that meaning, the learning is further reinforced. This is why theme-based learning is so effective.

Higher intelligence levels

In order to really understand a topic and apply one’s knowledge to solve real-life problems, you need to be able to connect knowledge and skills.

Through a theme-based approach, children learn to make connections constantly, thereby developing a much deeper and broader level of understanding than traditional learning can compete with.

Critical thinking skills are much more developed, because students regularly explore ideas, compare and evaluate viewpoints, apply knowledge, and even create new ideas.

In turn, this leads to advanced creative thinking (thinking outside the box) and problem-solving skills.

More Challenging Than Other Methods

Forget ‘accelerated learning’ approaches!

When you put learning into context, learning faces the same complexities as real-life. Numbers become real-life numbers. Language becomes richer and more challenging. Problems need to be determined and are not prescribed. Answers are many and varied. Critical thinking and communication are a must.

Theme-based learning is much more challenging than traditional learning, because the level of complexity, breadth and depth is far greater. Traditional learning puts too much emphasis on text books, lectures, exams/quizzes with multiple choice questions and prescribed answers, which severely restricts any learning.

Knowledge retention

When students learn through a theme, they are learning in context. This not only helps students understand what they are learning (and why they are learning it), but also to attach ideas and skills to specific contexts.

Consequently, this helps students remember what they have learned.

Add to that the use of project-based learning (an extension of theme-based learning), and you now have artifacts that the students create. Facts, skills and processes are attached to these artifacts, leading to greater memory retention.

On top of that, when teachers transfer previous knowledge and skills to new themes, it helps to enhance and reinforce their learning and prevent learning loss.

Traditional subject learning can give the illusion that your child is learning. From your own education, you can relate to this. You rote memorised from textbooks, took tests that required regurgitating a bunch of boring facts, and then got a score which ‘proved’ that you understood what you studied. But, did you really understand?

Traditional subject learning isn’t the kind of learning that children care about. Why would students care about textbooks, worksheets, or tests? In reality, students forget most of what they learn through this traditional approach. We, as adults, are proof of this. How much of your elementary and high school learning do you remember?

Fun

It can seem strange based on our own experiences, but learning done correctly is fun!

Theme-based learning is so much fun for children! They are learning about topics that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives. This creates what is known as ‘intrinsic motivation’; in other words, children learn because they want to learn, not because they have to learn.

When children want to learn, the quality of their learning is unquestionably superior.

Theme-based learning also requires hands-on approaches, including project-based learning, which makes it an active approach to learning – again, enhancing the level of engagement.

Next Steps

We all want our children to be happy and successful.

Part of this requires giving them the best educational start in life. What better way to do this than offering them an education that is engaging, meaningful and inspiring?

If you live in Vancouver and your child is of school age or joining kindergarten in September, sign up for one of our upcoming open houses.

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215-2678 West Broadway,
Vancouver, B.C.,
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