Where to start with topic-based teaching
How to make the links in topic-based teaching…
Teaching in Abu Dhabi Education Council elementary schools requires teachers to use a topic-based approach to teaching the core subjects. I can honestly say that topic-based teaching (or ‘finding links between discrete subjects and a specific topic or theme’) gave me some of my best memories and happiest students of my teaching career so far. At the outset, though, it can seem a bit daunting – and take a bit of work; depending on how you were trained, this topic-based idea can seem like a lot of effort (not to mention creative planning and resourcing). It can raise some questions, from yourself, children and parents (“My child isn’t learning Geography anymore?”), but if you persevere – and communicate the aims to everyone involved – then it can be a hugely rewarding and interesting approach.
What’s the point?
A question you might hear from parents is “But what’s the point?”. Your colleagues may feel the same – “what’s the point of spending all of this time and energy on something new when the old way works just fine”. The old way might work just fine, but what if the new way is amazing? Not just fine but a pleasure to teach? Surely that’s worth a try?
So, what IS the point? Well, the answer to that question is two-fold (at least!):
It’s more interesting!
First and foremost it’s child-centered and choosing topics that interest them means that you don’t have to work as hard to get them interested at the outset. Teach them everything they need to know through the medium of DINOSAURS! They’re automatically more likely to be interested than if you start the lesson with “In Math today, children, we’re going to be calculating different speeds” – fine, teach them about units of speed if you have to, but why not link that to dinosaur races! A T-Rex versus diplodocus speed test, isn’t that a bit more engaging? Resources can be made more interesting, work can be more creative so you can appeal to different learning styles, and you make them think about the application of the learning rather than just a linear route to the facts.
Ultimately, though, just getting their attention isn’t enough; it’s also our job to help them learn something. Now, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t want my students to simply recite facts in their predictable classroom-based environment. Truly, what is the point of that? My goal for my students was that they became dynamic, creative and interesting people. That they could work in groups, they could create, they could build, they could solve problems, they could dream… You don’t get that by learning all of the Tudor Kings and Queens by rote, it just doesn’t happen. However, if you can link that factual knowledge to other areas and help them to use it practically, then it becomes embedded and they are using that information and strengthening their wider skills. So your topic is ‘TV and entertainment’ but the curriculum says you also need to teach them about Tudor Kings. Well that’s great – ask them to research the qualities of Henry VIII’s wives and use that to write and perform a TV talent show (or ‘The Bachelor’…. OK, maybe not) with the wives as contestants! You could even ask them to film it, edit it on the computer, design backdrops or produce show information leaflets. All of a sudden, you’ve jumped from the facts at the centre of the lesson to a skills focus but, as they need to use the facts for the activity, they’re learning as they go.
Where to start
I’m going to walk you through my journey to a topic based approach. There are many different ways to get to this stage and this is just one example:
1) Know your class.
Find out what interests them, their personalities, their knowledge of pop culture and their skill-sets in general. You will need this knowledge to pick the topics which will interest them, and activities they can access. And you can’t assume all classes of the same age like the same thing (see example below).
Find a way to plan out your ideas without your head exploding! I found that I worked best by starting big (literally – A2 paper and felt tip pens work great!) and mind map all the different directions the topic could take us. It’s best at this stage to just let the crazy ideas come without trying to organize them – not corralling the flow of ideas really helps the really creative ideas flow. Once you have all your ‘big ideas’ down on paper, the next stage is to solidify the links to the formal curriculum objectives or outcomes, and ensure that everything you’ll be teaching has a solid basis in the curriculum so that you know that even the weirdest activity is actually teaching them something they need to learn. Finally, create your medium-term and weekly plans, breaking down the activities and planning how to achieve the objectives in a cumulative way, adding complexity throughout the topic. Build up those skills gradually, through smaller creative tasks and using a combination of group, paired and independent working, until they are ready for the more ‘big picture’ creativity that you’re going for.
3) Keep a record of progress.
We used topic books (or ‘learning journeys’) which gave the students ownership of their output. Many brought in pictures or research they had found at home (voluntary homework!) and others used their various talents to make their book their own – artistic drawings, creative writing, technical diagrams, etc. They had independent time where they directed their own learning into a specific area of the topic using non-fiction books, the internet or resources we had come across and presented their discoveries in their own way. Not one of them looked the same or had exactly the same focus which indicated to me that a ‘one size fits all classroom’ would not work for them; the topic approach gave them freedom.
4) Share and celebrate.
The best parts of the topic, for me, were the start and end. At the start, we planned a ‘wow’ activity – something that would hook them in. This took many different forms, from Theatre in Education performances, a school trip, a theme-related dress up day etc. At the end of the topic we would have a large celebration where all the classes in the school came together and presented their learning. Some presented through PowerPoint presentations, or through a large class display of all of their learning journeys for other classes to look through. It was a great time for children from other classes to meet and mingle and discuss their learning. I had never heard such a big buzz around the room than at those ‘events’; they were a fantastic celebration of learning.
In the hectic school year, it feels like an impossible luxury to carve out time to review what has been done, but the most useful time I spent in a topic cycle was that evaluation period at the end. I asked myself what had gone really well and not as well (or had been an unmitigated disaster!) and why. And I asked myself to name 10 children that seemed to get a lot from the topic and 10 who I felt hadn’t gotten as much, whether that be engagement or interest, or the quality of what they produced. This meant that I could plan my next topic with those children in mind, I wasn’t always just appealing to the kids who naturally thrived in a topic environment; it was important to actively seek ways (topics or methods) to draw them all in.
Example in Action
As an example of how different classes can be – one class absolutely loved our topic on fairy tales (you can picture it – unicorns, pink castles, magic dust, the whole sickly caboodle). The following year’s class laughed in my face at that example, so we decided together on fairy tales with a twist with the theme ‘Ogres’. At first, all they cared about was being as disgusting as possible and using the words ‘slime’ and ‘pus’ throughout their descriptive writing, but we got loads out of it: we held our own ‘ogre tea party’ where they made their own food (Math – using different quantities of ingredients); in English, we wrote invitations to their parents and imaginary characters (“What did you do at school today, son?” “Oh, just invited the gingerbread man to eat worm sandwiches at our party”); in Music, we designed a piece of music to accompany a dramatic scene from Shrek and compared it to the existing soundtrack to assess how best to evoke mood; and in Science, we researched different mini-beast habitats so that we could create appropriate habitats for different disgusting creatures, real and imaginary, so we had lots of great beetle and slug habitats dotted around the classroom for a few stinky days, as well as some amazing swamp designs for an imaginary ogre habitat.
Ultimately, a great topic is based on whatever catches the interest of the class. We worked on all sorts from the grisly ogres topic, to Tudor theatre (which culminated in us building our own working Globe theatre in the classroom and the children taking different roles running the theatre), so use your children’s interests and go from there. After they’ve done a few topics and know the approach, you can even start asking them for ideas and suggestions and then put it to a class vote. After a while, they become so used to this approach that they can even suggest the ‘big ideas’ for you too – and you’ll find that they’re even more creative than yours!
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