Real life is not about subjects – it’s about learning how to make connections

Posted on 25th Jun 2021 in School News, Which London School?

Why thematic learning should be at the heart of a modern secondary education, writes Susan Brooks, Head of Northwood Senior.

What is ‘Thematic Learning’ and how does it benefit children?

A thematic curriculum is one in which the skills and knowledge for each subject is acquired through the study of one central topic or theme; for example, ‘All About Me’, ‘Childhood’, or ‘Myths and Legends: Ancient China’. To take Ancient China as an example, students would explore mythology and traditional stories for their English studies; investigate the innovations of Ancient China through analysing historical sources; learn about the varied geography of China and the role that rivers play in an environment; anf explore the origins, beliefs and practices of Buddhism in TPR.

Real rewards

Students reap huge benefits from this style of teaching and learning as they promote ‘joined up’ thinking: we interact with the world in a complex way; we don’t see it through the lens of isolated subjects; in this style, learning becomes more meaningful. With one teacher planning so many subjects across the week, all skills are taught in the same way. For example, essay writing in history is the same as in English, consolidating learning and simplifying approaches.

It is exciting that the rhythm of the lessons change week on week, though students know that they will continue studying the current topic, subjects are not fixed to a particular lesson; thematic lessons can be tailored to suit a student’s engagement and need. While one subject usually takes a lead in a lesson, the skills and knowledge from other subjects can be reinforced throughout. This hugely benefits students through regular exposure to relevant skills, resulting in them being acquired more efficiently and embedded more deeply. Finally, the learning is highly attuned to students’ interests. If they become absorbed in one aspect of the topic this can be explored further; as long as the skills are covered, the learning can be adapted to suit the needs of the students.

More active engagement

The best news is that this approach promotes more engagement and more active learning – which ultimately leads to more progress and some extraordinary results as it encourages higher order thinking.

Students enjoy making connections for themselves and are more engaged in the material and are more willing to engage and work hard in lessons. Their enthusiasm when they are in thematic lessons is palpable. Many Students who previously professed to dislike certain subjects, or tasks such as extended writing, willingly participate in all activities and have improved their marks in assessed pieces of work.

Demonstrable benefits – both now and for the future

Alongside more active engagement in lessons the development of higher-order thinking skills and active teamwork, this style of learning has real long-term benefits.

Students are more self-motivated and more able to develop the real-world analytical and problem solving skills that should not only pay dividends in examinations but stand them in good stead for the future.

Quotes from some Year 7 students

  • I like that we have enough time to understand the topic we’re studying in really good detail.
  • The reason I like Thematic is because it is nice having a mix of subjects instead of doing one thing which can get quite boring.
  • I find that it is a lot more fun that when I am learning about a new subject I can learn all about it and all the connections in one Thematic lesson instead of in English, Geography, History and Religious Studies. It is also fun that I don’t know what is coming up next and it will be a surprise.
  • I think Thematic is good because it’s easier to make links between all the different subjects. I like coming to the lesson not knowing what we’re going to do. When we learnt about the silk road we learned about the full picture which brought it to life. Now with WW2 our learning makes it easy to imagine what it was like.
  • I think Thematic is fun as you can learn about history one day and then the next you would be doing some religious studies about the place you have just learnt so it all just makes sense in your mind.
  • I like the Thematic learning because we do a huge variety of fun learning that’s always different and changing.
  • Thematic is great because when we learn we take on lots of different roles and we are actually just having lots of fun.
  • Thematic is very fun because you do not know what subject you are going to focus in that lesson.
  • Thematic is the best because we learn something new and different every day.
  • It think that a benefit of Thematic learning is how we learn things in more depth and I feel like I’m learning much faster because of that. I’m amazed at how much we’ve done this term!
  • Because Thematic learning is a variety of subjects all in one it makes us understand so much more in just in one lesson really quickly.
  • It always feels like you’ve learned everything you would want to know about something.
  • I like Thematic because when we go into the lesson, we have no idea what we’ll learn about next which is exciting.

This article first appeared in the 2021/22 edition of Which London School? & the South-East, which you can view below: