The Benefits and Pitfalls of Themes

2017-05-13-07-51-11-900x675When I was teaching second grade, I would always use themes to organize our learning activities. Over the years in my classroom, we studied bees, trees, inventions, holidays around the world, advertising/media literacy, robots, and Antarctica. These themes helped my students by providing multiple exposures to vocabulary, content, and ideas as we explored our topic across different subject areas.

As I think about my new role, I’m contemplating what themes might offer to a STEM classroom. Specifically, I’m wondering whether to pursue a whole-school theme, a theme for each group of learners, or to forgo a theme altogether. Here’s a bit of my thinking about the benefits and pitfalls of themes in a Makerspace/engineering setting.

Benefits of Themes:

  • Help learners make connections and introduce them to important ideas they may not encounter on their own
  • Offer increased cohesion between projects tackled by different students
  • Provide a jumping-off point for learners who may not respond well to a completely blank slate
  • Help stimulate observations and conversations about projects between different groups of learners
  • Connect learning and making to the real world

Pitfalls of Themes:

  • Can be constricting if too narrow — students may not be able to find an entry point into the theme that relates to their interests
  • May prevent students from stumbling onto other ideas or content of interest through natural pursuit of their own ideas
  • More likely to lead to students trying to create products to meet a perceived expectation instead of considering what they want to make

As I consider my role as a teacher of students in Pre-K to 8th grade, I am drawn to the idea of having a whole-school theme, as learners in different sections of STEM class could witness the thinking and creating done by others thinking about a similar topic. I am also particularly interested in the potential of the authentic audiences that a theme would create — students would be able to design products to be shared with another group of learners. A theme could also streamline my content delivery and help spark a common conversation that could happen across groups of learners, rather than every group doing something wholly different.

To me, the linchpin of a theme’s success in a setting that aims to foster creativity and innovation is flexibility. I want my theme to be a source of inspiration for my students to dwell in possibilities, rather than a restrictive block to their thinking. Naturally, this leads me to think that broad themes would be best — presently, I am leaning towards Sustainable Planet, Inventions, or Robotics. I would love to hear suggestions of other themes!



3 thoughts on “The Benefits and Pitfalls of Themes

  1. Norah July 25, 2018 / 7:06 am

    Before I read your decision to make a theme broad, that was to be my suggestion, Nicole. The three themes you have mentioned sound good with the possibility of a range of interpretations. Perhaps you could ask the children for suggestions. You could have themes or projects that relate to your school or local area. Improve school facilities – playground, paths, gardens. Making our city/town/local area more livable – green spaces, transport (including bridges). If you had a broad theme, different classes or year levels could discuss how they wish to respond to or interpret it. If the theme is school-wide, you will need a number of themes as you won’t want to repeat it too often.
    What an exciting project, Nicole. I wish you well with it.

    • Cultivating Questioners August 1, 2018 / 1:30 pm

      Thanks for your lovely suggestions, Norah! I am hoping the theme will achieve exactly what you said — allowing different groups to create their own interpretations and approaches to it. As a teacher, I also thrive on novelty, so the idea of having a different theme each year greatly appeals to me!

      • Norah August 4, 2018 / 2:36 am

        I wish you great success with it and wonderful learning for the students.

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