The Big Idea and Thematic Planning

In this essay I want to think aloud about approaches to planning and carrying out thematic instruction. Those of you who have read my previous essays know I usually have strong opinions on the educational topics I raise, be it policy, instructional pedagogy, assessment…. In this essay I am going to explore my conflicting thoughts on different approaches to such planning, particularly looking at idea of backward planning.

When teachers thought of doing a “thematic unit,” (and in the few places where they still do) they often thought about all the interesting activities that somehow would be fun or interesting connected to that theme. “We’ll study farms… I could take them to a farm. We could study different animals. We can look at the food chain. We can look at how foods are processed…”

Currently another approach is being advocated to replace this type of thematic planning. This newer approach is known generically as backward planning, or as promoted by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design. In this approach, one doesn’t start with a topic per say, but with a big idea or basic concept that one wants the students to understand. In science, this might be, for example, “the food chain” or “properties of solids,” or “the effects of humans on their environment,” in social studies, students it might be understanding revolutions. In this approach it is only after deciding on the central idea, that you decide what topic you might use to learn about that. Then after deciding the topic do we finally get to thinking about the activities that would help lead to an upstanding of the concept or big idea. We could study the food chain in ocean life, in the desert or other environments. In this approach we are studying the ocean, not so much to learn about the ocean, but as an example of the food chain. The topic is an example of a bigger idea, not the topic itself. We could pick from a variety of historical revolutions to understand revolutions in general. Once we know what main idea we want to get across, we think about how our topic and activities will help the students achieve that understanding of the big idea or central concept.

The backward planning approach may fit more easily into a discipline or subject area approach than a traditional thematic approach. The big ideas and concepts come from the what that discipline sees as core and important. It also may be easier to implement within a standards-based system. The big idea or concept can come from the list of standards that the teacher is expected to cover. It also keeps things focused. When one plans under this approach, one is constantly asking oneself, how does this advance the big idea or major concept? How does this prepare the student to be able to show they have this understanding? As one who prepares teachers to enter the field and works with others returning for further education, this has been an approach I have often advocated when I have students plan units and lessons.

Recently, I have been asking myself, what might be lost in this approach. I was brought to think about this in reading Deborah Meier’s January 2010 Column. In it she was briefly mentioning her school’s approach to thinking about a theme. What are all the types of connections that can be made to this topic? One thing leads to another. This approach has a more playful, spontaneous feel to it than the Backward Design approach. In the topic approach, the teacher has more freedom to see where things lead, where the students might want to go, to go off on tangents as the class or individuals discover new things or opportunities arise. This is connected to the second advantage which is connections. In the topical approach, one can look at how this topic connects to lots of concepts in different fields, area, disciplines. In studying ancient Egypt, we might look at Egyptian myths, the culture, fiction about Egypt, the historical implications, the science of the Egyptians, their influence on mathematics. This approach is more likely to integrate the disciplines. I like the sense of intellectual play (see my earlier column on play) that such an approach can encourage.

I just learned about an endeavor to transform teaching using this topical approach at a workshop. In this approach, called Learning in Depth, students are given a topic, such as apples, dust, or circuses, which will become their individual specialty for the rest of the k-12 school experience. “The aim is that students, by the end of their schooling, will know as much about that topic as almost anyone on earth.” The student will study this topic in whatever direction the topic and their interest takes them.

In the backward planning or Understanding by Design approach, many of those topics would be seen as moving away from the central concept that studying of it was an example of. In a topic based approach, the students become knowledgeable about a broad range aspects and connections within that topic. However, we cannot be assured that they will hit on the particular central concept that we or the discipline sees as key.

I do not mean to imply that even under the Understanding by Design approach one does not find tangents, or make connections to other areas. Quite the contrary, this approach encourages making connections. If the connections to other examples weren’t made, the topic would lose its power as an example of a big idea that would transfer to other examples. However, the connections would be focused on connections to the concept, not to the topic.

Really, in the end, maybe it doesn’t have to be either/or. Maybe sometimes we can take the Understanding by Design approach and gain from the advantages of that focus on developing a deep understandings of a concept. Other times, we can explore a topic and gain from the advantages of looking at a topic in all of its dimensions and connections to a variety of disciplines and aspects.

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