Thematic approaches to teaching and learning
Debate and discuss the benefits and drawbacks of cross-curricular and thematic approaches to teaching and learning. You must draw upon a range of academic sources including “Excellence and Enjoyment” (DfES, 2004)
In your essay you should:
- Debate thematic and cross-curricular approaches to learning and teaching.
- Ensure a wide range of reading informs the rationale
- Demonstrate an insightful application of theory to practice
- Produce a well-written essay that is carefully constructed with high quality presentation and communication (with Harvard referencing)
Thematic education is a method of teaching that is becoming more and more prominent within schools across the country due to the Government's education review and their proposed new curriculum for 2011. The switch to this method of teaching is intended to help reorganise the traditional subject areas into ‘thematic' areas of learning, easing the pressures on schools to teach strictly to the curriculum and give their teachers the freedom they need in order to do cross-curricular thematic lessons. This report will attempt to define both thematic and cross-curricular education and discuss their respective advantages and disadvantages.
Shoemaker (1989) states that a cross-curriculum education is one that is set up so that classroom subjects overlap with one another, the method attempts to bring together numerous aspects of the curriculum into various lessons to reflect the ‘real world' such that students can “use knowledge learned in one context as a knowledge base in other contexts” (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989). Shanahan (1995) agrees with this definition, he states that “thematic teaching is a method of organizing teaching around themes or topics making it possible to integrate instruction across core areas...Thematic units are designed to encourage students to delve deep into topics developing both an awareness and understanding of existing connections across ideas.” The above definitions suggest that thematic and cross-curricular teaching is essential for children to associate that skills learnt in one class are important tools for completing tasks within other subjects in school and tasks outside. Applebee, Langer, & Mullis (1989) report why the change to this method or teaching is necessary “while students are learning the basic information in core subject areas, they are not learning to apply their knowledge effectively in thinking and reasoning” Marzano (1991) and Perkins (1991) build on this; they believe that these methods work towards addressing some ‘recurring problems' in education, one in particular being that of isolated skill instruction. Ofsted's report ‘The Curriculum in Successful Primary Schools' (2002) in which it was noted that successful schools were the ones in which “The teachers recognised that where links are effective they enable pupils to apply the knowledge and skills learned in one subject to others.”
Because cross-curricular and thematic teaching involves the linking of activities that are designed around topics or themes as well as crossing numerous areas within the National Curriculum they “provide an environment that fosters and encourages process learning and active involvement of all students” (Fisher, 1991), this would therefore help teacher address the different learning styles of pupils within their classrooms. A claim that Komorowska (2001) backs up, stating that because “teaching children is not systematic, the methods and techniques chosen by the teacher are of a higher significance than their results.” With regards to the diverse learning styles that children have, experts have identified three (http://www.time4learning.com/learning-styles.shtml):
- Auditory learners remember by talking out loud, like to have things explained orally and may have trouble with written instructions. Auditory learners may talk to themselves when learning something new.
- Visual learners easily remember visual details and prefer to see what they are learning. They prefer to write down instructions and may have trouble following lectures. This type of learner enjoys art and drawing; reads maps, charts and diagrams well; fascinated with machines and inventions; plays with lego; likes mazes and puzzles.
- Kinesthetic learners prefer activities that allow them to do what they are learning about. Tactile learners like to touch things in order to learn about them and like to move around when talking or listening. Shows you rather than tells you.
Through the use of thematic and cross curricular teaching, classroom teachers are able to cater for these three distinct groups of learners and, therefore, create an atmosphere in which each group remains interested in the lesson thus combating any boredom and increasing the pupils' potential for learning. Former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Charles Clarke, wrote in the Excellence and Enjoyment Strategy (2004), "What makes good primary education great is the fusion of excellence and enjoyment. Children learn better when they are excited and engaged - but what excites them and engages them best is truly excellent teaching, which challenges them and shows them what they can do." Which falls in line with Larsen-Freeman's statement (2000) that learning becomes even more effective due to it being “facilitated in a cheerful environment”, and Resnick's (1989) claim that this method increases pupils' motivation for learning and their level of engagement because they can see the value of what they are being taught and become more actively engaged in the lesson as opposed to the isolated skill learning that other methods offer.
It is, however, important to consider general learning characteristics as well as the previously mentioned groups of characteristics and how these are successfully manipulated through the use of these methods. Thaiss (1986), Krogh (1990) and Jacobs (1989) all write that children that are able to use investigatory skills to explore what they are learning, and interact with other members of their learning community, whether that's other pupils, teachers or classroom assistants, actually learn more than those children that are not encouraged to ask questions and share opinions with other learners. Vygotsky (1962) gives us an explanation as to why this technique is successful. He pointed out that children who have different skills, learn from each other. This is because through the encouragement of investigation, questioning and working together, pupils are given the opportunity to see tasks from the point of view of others.
Finally, the humanistic approach in teaching emphasises the importance of individual and distinctive characteristics of a human being and the desire for fulfilment. In education it means student-oriented teaching rather than teacher-oriented one Biskup (1990). Fisher et al says, “what promotes creativity is a questioning classroom, where teachers and pupils ask unusual and challenging questions; where new connections are made; where ideas are represented in different ways- visually, physically and verbally; where there are fresh approaches and solutions to problems; and where the effects of ideas and actions are critically evaluated.” In a humanistic classroom, such as the one that uses thematic and cross-curricular methods, the teacher is not only a supporter and helper but also a learner. This is because the work is based on themes that the teacher may not be used to, it brings the teacher down to the same level of the child and the pupil almost takes charge in investigating by asking questions. The teacher's main role is to create an atmosphere in which learners feel relaxed and do not have any inhibitions thus learners' talents are exploited during the learning process.
Of course, whilst there are numerous benefits to using these methods, there are also a number of drawbacks which must be considered. David Hart, former general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, "Theme-based education will disadvantage pupils in the transition to secondary. And it will make the secondary teacher's task much more difficult." This is to say that even though there may be benefits to teaching like this within a primary classroom, pupils heading from a largely thematic based style of teaching could possibly find that the generic style of teaching within secondary education i.e. topic-based learning, difficult to adjust to. Thus disadvantaging the pupil's learning experience, compared to classmates who are used to this type of teaching.
Further drawbacks of the methods include the need for ongoing collaboration between teachers and planning, as the themes must be carefully and thought through in order for them to be meaningful and make sense within the curriculum. Chris Woodhead, states in his report of 1992 that, "It's harder for teachers to structure a coherent provision in the subjects that are worth studying if they're trying to construct links between these subjects as well." The extra work that Woodhead comments on is necessary for the success of the methods because the intertwining of the curriculum within that one topic, as stated earlier, may be difficult and would require a lot of planning and collaboration with other members of staff, and without this extra work from the teachers it is possible that some content that could be covered may be missed. Finally, with regards to planning, the resources available to teachers within a school could also be a potential obstacle for the two methods. For example a school may not have sufficient ICT resources for all year groups to use in order to develop these skills during literacy or numeracy lessons.
There is also the possibility that within these sessions that some pupils get confused and lose sight of the main concepts of the activity or lesson. This could be down to poor planning and organisation of the teacher or due to the pupil being over-stimulated with the many different activities in motion within the lesson, thus, resulting in the pupil being ‘spread thinly' across the lesson, leaving efforts for learning ineffective.
The cross-curricula and thematic methods of teaching can be beneficial to teachers and students, as discussed previously they allow children to learn in a way that is most natural to them. As Scott and Ytreberg (1990) state: “some children develop early, some later. Some children develop gradually, others in leaps and bounds. It is not possible that at the age of five all children can do x, at the age of seven they can all do y, or that at the age of ten they can all do z..” This is to say that children are all different human beings learning things at different rates. These methods allow all pupils to pick up the intended learning objectives and goals through this investigatory process, it's through this process that the pupils become more responsible and engaged in their own learning. In effect this ‘levels the playing field' allowing the pupils to successfully complete the learning objective in their own way and within the intended period of time. However, it would be prudent to take to these methods with caution as the drawbacks discussed do seem to have basis such as
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