Development of Thematic Approaches to Learning
One of initial references to this philosophy of child-centered curriculum is Plato’s statement that children’s’ education should take the form of play. He was the first to formulate a comprehensive education system covering every aspect from its administration to a detailed curriculum.
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Plato considered health and beauty of the body and mind as necessary goals of education.. Games contribute a lot to children’s’ education. Any individual who wants to be good in anything, he or she must practice that thing from early childhood (Coulby, 1989, p.126). Aristotle went a step further to encourage development of curriculums that allow children to grow into educated states. This was represented in his work on “Growth Metaphysics” (Clark, 1988, p. 112).
Child-centeredness approach was developed further by Rousseau when he provided a philosophy referred to as “Naturalism” (Kerry, 1994, p. 187). His ideas were in agreement with Aristotelian notion of “Growth Metaphysic” when he stated that children had capacity, internal power to move towards perfection (Helby, 1997, p. 56).
He roundly understood the nature of child development. He fully understood the effects of civilization processes on pupils. The processes of civilization made people dependent on each other and could divert pupil’s desires to material rather than physical necessities (Baker 1998: 158). This revelation was very necessary in the incorporation of foreign languages in primary curriculums.
Rousseau understanding of importance of first-hand experiences in learning helped in establishing new methods of learning. He came up with the principle that a child was naturally good. Again, children’s processes of thought were less developed than adults thought processes, and not comparable to them. According to Rousseau, childhood has its own ways of thinking, seeing and feeling.
Therefore, teachers must adapt to the capacity or level of children for learning to take place. He put more emphasis on the process of learning which covered most essentials of child-centered approach to curriculum. Given a suitable environment, a child would develop naturally (Boss, 2007, p. 126).
Learning in children is best self directed and the role of the teacher is to enable children learn. The teacher is not supposed to transmit knowledge. Rousseau also emphasized learning process to be organized for individuals and not class sized groups. He preferred isolation of a child from all others so that all areas of learning are developed by the skilled teacher.
Through a keen engineered exploitation of experiences of everyday life, the teacher should device a highly structured, orderly and disciplined curriculum. These methods made us realize importance of first-hand experiences in learning which were later referred to as topic work and discovery learning (Kerry, 1994, p. 134).
This philosophy on children’s education had important consequences. It inspired educationists into pedagogical discourse especially in Germany where it contributed to the foundation of the first common schools (Baker, 1998, p. 62). It also formed the basis for further developments of primary curriculums.
Dewey contributed further to child-centered approach to curriculum development as advocated by Rousseau, by introducing “topic-work” (Kerry, p, 1994). John Dewey stated in his philosophy that a child’s social activities are the true centre of correlation on school subjects, and not science, literature, history or geography.
He was of the opinion that education should be taken as a continuing reconstruction of experience and that the process and goal of education was one and the same thing (Carl, p. 42). He re-interpreted Rousseau’s philosophy of natural and spontaneous activities believing that they could be directed to educational ends and is best done through problems of the children’s own devising (Kerry, 1994). His approach emphasized on scientific approach of pupils pursuing their own studies and solving problems through speculation, observation, information gathering and testing out guesses and hypotheses (Kerry, 1994: 189).
Importance of evaluation of Curriculum to Design
The development of primary curriculums follows a tradition of integrated approaches of cross curricular, thematic and discreet, and subject-based approaches to learning. Thematic approach is the most common and variety of terms has been used to describe thematic approaches, such terms include: project work, centre of interest and topic work (Maclure, 1988, p. 69)). The terms share common underlying assumptions about curriculum development, children’s learning and teaching (Webb, 1999, p. 115).
Thematic approaches to learning relates to a view of children’s knowledge, and learning as learner-centered. Disciplines such as sciences or mathematics, are seen as abstract adult construction, the logic of which does not necessarily make sense within child psychology (Boss, 2007, p. 126).
For instance, understanding the world of Mathematical concepts for young children need to be confirmed with actual objects in reality (Gage, 1992, p. 56). Whether the child is handling the abstract concepts of, prior logic of mathematics is not evident to the child and is indistinguishable from empirical moths or the empirical concepts of science are irrelevant (Gewitz, 1997, p. 34).
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Consequently, thematic approaches are used by teachers in the curriculum to provide children learning experiences which are coherent and relevant (Adelman, 2000, p. 45). The curriculum content should not be imposed entirely from without.
The curriculum theme is intended to provide an area of interest to children within whom learning can take place. This cannot be realized by teaching fragmented subjects in the timetable. The curriculum theme should be one which children can identify with and own. Coulby (1989, p. 116) debates the significance of curriculum ownership by teachers and children; also warns against prescription of a curriculum which accords teachers no control over its content.
Accordingly, teachers must feel a sense of originality and individuality about the curriculum which they share with their children. A thematic curriculum is the necessary instrument for such an approach, where teachers can design a curriculum which is relevant to their expertise and enthusiasm and share it with children.
A thematic curriculum provides children opportunities to be involved in the selection of learning content. Development of curriculum can be negotiated so that children as well as their teachers feel a sense of ownership and distinctiveness about what they are learning.
Their participation or involvement in the development of curriculum will encourage their learning and commitment to the content (Pollard, 1994, p. 43). Learning is an activity which demands engagement. It is not an activity which can be performed for students.
The more sense of ownership children have for the curriculum, the greater the likelihood of their being involved in learning through it. Thus, teachers could involve children in planning and employing their own creativity in the process. The outcome can be a feeling of ownership and commitment (White, 2004, p. 35).
National curriculums should not deter the development of integrated topic work derived from children initiatives. Primary school teachers have shown how this can be achieved by fully engaging children’s interests and enthusiasms. Thematic approach to curriculum development, however, has some drawbacks; the approach cannot cover the whole curriculum comprehensively, particularly in mathematics (Coulby, 1989, p. 154)
The interests and concentration of children are best engaged in their learning about real things. Teachers must ensure that learners are exposed as much as possible on real objects to be involved in real activities. Learning is all about performing real things (Cohen, 1994, p. 24).
Education is regarded as the fulfillment of the present, not just a preparation for the future. Single subject timetabled curriculum makes it difficult for this to be achieved. Coulby (1989, 74) cites Plowden Report (1967) that stressed the significance of children’s learning through direct hands on activity, rather than through abstract propositions by teachers. It is debatable that thematic approach allows more readily for this in according children opportunities in engaging in real life tasks. In this context, activities are likely to have more intrinsic worth to children.
Disadvantages of Thematic Approach to Curriculum Design
Thematic approach in primary schools cannot be seen fully to be advantageous. It has resulted to some teachers making spurious links between subjects and content not relevant for children. Sometimes it has resulted to omission of curriculum areas. Again, integrated curriculum is far from universal in primary schools (Coulby, 1989, p. 74).
Children learn with best interest and concentration they are substantially engaged in learning about real things. The role of teachers is to ensure exposure of learners as much as possible on real objects to be involved in real activities.
Learning is all about doing practical things (Cohen, 1994, p. 24). Education should be seen as achievement of the present, not just a preparation for the future. For this reason, focus on single subject timetabled curriculum makes it difficult for this to be attained.
Plowden Report of 1967
Coulby (1989, 74) cites Plowden Report (1967) that stressed the significance of children’s learning through direct hands on activity, rather than through abstract propositions by teachers. It is debatable that thematic approach allows more readily for this in according children opportunities in engaging in real life tasks.
In this context, activities are likely to have more intrinsic worth to children. The Plowden report insisted among other issues that knowledge should be limited to separate compartments. Its leaned towards a curriculum marked by weak classification of knowledge. Plowden report provided considerable support and credibility to idea of early childhood education whose curriculum was weakly classified (Christie, 2005m p. 21)..
Thematic and Discreet Approaches to Learning
It is important to understand how different parts of specialized subject curriculums such as mathematics can be best presented to pupils. There is much arguments about teaching mathematics using thematic or topic or by presenting it as a discreet subject. In terms of technical subjects such as mathematics, both thematic and discreet approaches have advantages and disadvantages.
It would therefore seem prudent to plan by drawing upon the advantages of each option rather than limiting the potential of either possibility. Both thematic and discreet approaches need to be drawn upon if technical subjects such as mathematics need to be taught effectively (Boss, 2007.P, 12)…
Commencing learning from a thematic approach seems to be appropriate to mathematics learning in primary school. The approach helps in placing mathematics in context. Given the topic on Transport, for instance, thematic approach would lend itself to arrange of opportunities to emphasize on early number work, such as; making collections of a certain number of vehicles on the road between specific periods or time. the approach would also lend itself to measuring how far different vehicles travelled.
Stories could also be drawn upon with a transport theme as a commencing point of a mathematics activity. In most occasions it will be the presentation which links to the theme rather than the concept itself. Frankly, it is unlikely that it will be admissible to attribute all mathematics taught within a given term to one particular topic without tenuous links. It would be necessary to plan parts of mathematics curriculum which most realistically relate to the term’s theme. However, planning mathematics as a discreet subject as well ensures complete coverage of mathematics curriculum (Coulby, 1989, p. 52).
The change of focus to an initial focus on mathematics as a discreet subject can be helpful. For instance, it helps with a focus on mathematical skills and concepts which need to be taught and planning can concentrate on ensuring that links between different aspects of mathematics can be considered.
It is important to note that mathematics requires a child to make these links between different aspects of the subject and that this can be supported with carefully focused planning of curriculum. Planning mathematics through a topic creates a tendency to skim the surface of the subject rather than emphasizing upon a particular concept or skill in sufficient detail.
Although some mathematics will be taught through links with topic, more emphasis should be in providing adequate coverage of mathematical concepts. The merging of thematic and discreet approaches is supported in the guidance on long-term planning (White, 2004, p. 61).
UK national curriculum is organized into programs of study sections which can result to subdivision of the subject. This method of planning aids the integration of these sections. The national curriculum provides rational for choosing mathematics topic. The curriculum also takes cognizance of the importance of planning across the curriculum.
The emphasis in schools is to provide thorough coverage and to plan the most appropriate means to ensure that this happens. There is always a link between mathematics and a topic teaching mathematics, as well as discreet subject teaching where appropriate in UK schools. Early childhood schools commence its planning from a topic and the junior school emphasizes upon the discreet subject as the commencing point (Couby,1989, p.130)
Cross Curriculum Approach
Cross-curricular approach advocate for teaching of a number of subjects using a theme or topic as a central core. Teachers are able to use this approach to enable children apply the skills and concepts achieved from subject teaching. Furthermore, this approach enables children to understand how to use, develop and extend the many skills they are getting.
They are also able to recognize the purpose and value in having those skills. The topic of study produces an end result whereas subject teaching tends to be continuing (Christie, 2005, p. 18).
Cross curricular approaches makes children understand the type of skills to apply when tackling topic work, such as; scientific or mathematical. This is reinforced by understanding that skills and knowledge gained through subject teaching are the techniques people use to solve problems, make discoveries, and communicate with other.
Thematic work is carefully planned to ensure it is complementary to the levels of subject teaching. Infact, children as young as four can learn fast to transfer and use skills, provided the framework is there for them to do so (Boss, 2007, p. 125).
Current Debates and Relevant Professional and Political Issues on Best Approaches to Curriculum Development
The national curriculum has recreated major differences between educational professionals and politicians. Coulby (1995, p. 98) argues that recent curriculum reform has destroyed the professional roles of teachers where thematic approaches to learning was the main focus.
The major contribution of primary school teachers is through construction of thematic curriculum. Teachers feel that this curriculum has been unique for them as individual teachers and their classes. Thematic approach to learning provides inspiration and excitement which the top-down prescription of content can never achieve.
Curriculum development should never be about limiting teachers into narrow corridors of a highly specific separate curriculum which is common to all. Instead, curriculum development should be about helping teachers to develop a superior integrated curriculum which handles progression without omission of essential content (Acker, 1997, p. 155).
National curriculums have been hijacked by politicians as a weapon against primary progressive force (Boss, 2007p, 127). The national curriculum lacks flexibility as it provides statutory standardized national assessment and separate subject framework.
When reforms on National Curriculum were undertaken in 1988 in the UK, the government had initially assured teachers that it would not legislate for teaching methods (Baker, 1993, p. 155). This meant that the government intended to place the ways the curriculum was to be handled in the hands of professionals.
However, this promise was contravened in the 1990s when the government intervened in school teaching methods. Issues of primary school curriculum became government’s campaign tool (Back to basics), portraying primary teachers as driven by left wing, doctrinaire theory (Christie, 2005, p. 12).
The policies on teaching practices in primary schools were criticized by government, especially group work and individualized teaching. In order to reduce stranglehold of teachers in curriculum development, the government set up a short sharp inquiry to look at primary teaching methods.
Government advocated for return of didactic class teaching (Carl, 2009, p. 47). The recommendations from the resulting report were meant to provide researched evidence to support government’s point of view. Indeed the report drew on classroom research data of late1970s and early 1980s to show the overuse of individualized instruction and the benefits of class teaching (Graves, 1983, p. 34).
Didactive teaching approach as preferred by government was not however recommended by the 1988 report. It rather recommended type of teaching where teachers pose high level of intellectual demands on children in well formed open questions. Group and individual instructions were intended to balance this recommendation.
From the recommendations, it is open that tutors require skills and judgments to enable them chooses and use whichever organizational strategy whether; class, group or individual (Carl, 2009, p. 54). Educational professionals were not bothered by this provision.
Rather, they were not happy with the statement at the end of the paragraph on the report: that “the judgment it must be stressed, should be educational and organizational, rather than, as it is often, doctrinal “(Alexander, 1992, p. 32).
That statement inferred that teachers in primary schools are driven in their judgments by commitment to doctrinaire. Educational professional in primary schools felt agitated by this statement. This statement fully took into consideration government views that depicted primary school teachers as professional who lack capacity in curriculum development (Carl, 2009, p. 87).
Politicians view teachers as professionals leaning left wing ideological doctrines and lacking rational commitment to their profession (Boss, 2007, p. 121). The report aimed at perfectly meeting the Government’s back-to-basics policy by prescribing simplicity.
On curriculum, the report agrees with the role of thematic work. The report believes that when topic focuses on defined and restricted number of achievement targets it can contribute effectively to development of pupil learning (Alexander, 1992, p. 35).
It is clear on recommendations towards a curriculum of discrete subjects. This provides a strong suggestion that there should be specialist teaching primary key stages: it emphasized on specialization on teaching (Carl, 2009, p. 44). This view jeopardized the possibility of providing integrated curriculum. It also hampered the role of generalist class teacher who understands each child’s learning needs (Christie, 2005, p. 15).
In sum, primary school curricula should be taught in thematic way. Thematic approach puts emphasis on major topics or themes that enables pupils to explore variety of perspectives. In the process pupils are able to draw skills, knowledge and understanding from a number of subjects.
It focuses on practical investigations and has ability to contribute to social as well as academic development of students. The main advantage of thematic approach is that it encourages a holistic view of the curriculum rather than compartmentalizing subject areas.
Thus, it enables children to get a more relevant curriculum. However, relevant topics in this approach are often chosen to be based upon emphasis on a geography, history or science rather than mathematics. For this reason, it is unlikely that sufficient mathematics would be covered by teaching it through the topic alone. In addition, it can cause a tenuous link between mathematics and the topic (Coulby, 1989, p. 129).
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