Theme Based, Integrated Curriculum

THEMATIC UNITS are frameworks for organizing content and learning experiences around topics or themes that cross-curricular boundaries (Cooper, 1997; Shanahan,2000). They provide a way for integrating language arts and relevant content areas, and they can be constructed in a variety of ways around many types of concepts or ideas. They may arise from students’ inquiry, although the grade-level curriculum may determine the subject to some extent. They begin with a topic, which is expanded into a theme or purpose worthy of investigation. As students immerse themselves in the topic through reading and discussion, subtopics emerge. The ocean unit below shows how a topic about ocean can be developed into a hub of a thematic unit.

Benefits of Thematic Units

Educators see many advantages for using thematic units as students become active participants in the authentic, meaningful experiences these units offer. The following list identifies some of the benefits of thematic units.

  • Social collaboration: Students work with each other and the teacher on selecting, planning, and implementing thematic units. They learn to communicate effectively, accept differences of opinion, and create joint projects. Meaningful learning: Thematic units that deal with issues of personal and social significance are more meaningful to students than the isolated practice of skills.
  • Learning skills: Skills learned in the context of purposeful activities help students see their application to actual situations and recognize their usefulness.
  • Cultural diversity: Social interactions enable students from different backgrounds to appreciate each other’s characteristics as they collaborate on projects. Electronic collaboration on the Internet often helps to achieve the goal of cultural diversity.
  • In-depth investigation: Students have time and opportunity to pursue subjects of interest through research, experimentation, and discovery.
  • Choice: Thematic units offer students choices instead of whole-class assignments. Students may usually choose projects that interest them, ways to conduct investigations, students with whom to work, and the formats for their final reports or projects.
  • Language development: Students use all forms of language purposefully as they investigate their themes. Language is integrated with content areas in authentic ways.
  • Connections: Instead of isolating subjects artificially, thematic units enable students to become aware of natural connections across the curriculum. Students realize that they need to cross-curricular boundaries to solve problems and define issues.
  • Brain compatibility: Recent research indicates that the brain processes information more effectively through patterns and connections than through fragmentation. The more that knowledge is unified, the better the brain functions (Beane, 1997).

The following is a thematic unit sample from one of our affiliate schools, which may offer a glimpse of how a thematic unit may be organized.

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