One week the curriculum theme is farm animals. The next week it’s community helpers and other occupations, or things that fly. Almost every child care center and preschool has used a theme-based curriculum at one time or another. Thematic units are popular among young children and teachers alike. What many early childhood educators don’t realize is that the use of thematic units provides an integrated approach to teaching and learning. Such an integrated approach is supported by research on how the brain works and how human beings learn. Ultimately, the use of thematic units helps young children achieve higher levels of learning.
Brain Research & Learning Psychology
Brain research challenges the belief that learning, and therefore teaching, can be separated into traditional domains, such as cognitive (thinking), affective (feeling), and psychomotor (movement). While separating learning into domains is necessary for discussion purposes, learning cannot actually be separated anatomically or perceptually. The notion of teaching to the “whole brain” is gaining popularity and is particularly significant to language arts educators because language production is a whole brain activity (Wesley, 1992).
Gardner’s (1983/93) theory of multiple intelligences states that in addition to the traditional verbal/linguistic and logical/ mathematical intelligences, five other types of intelligence exist. These include musical, visual/spatial, body/kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences. In order to facilitate learning, teachers should provide a variety of learning activities which encompass all of the intelligences, rather than focusing solely on traditional language and math activities. (See “Developing Multiple Intelligences in Young Learners” in the September/ October 1996 issue of Earlychildhood NEWS.)
Research by Piaget (1969), Vygotsky (1962), and Bruner (1960) also supports an integrated approach to teaching and learning. This research concludes that learning is a highly integrated process which cannot be easily separated into domains or traditional academic disciplines, such as math, science, and language. Children learn by active engagement with their environment and through social engagement with other human beings. “Multiple complex and concrete experiences are essential for meaningful learning and teaching” (Caine & Caine, 1991, p. 5).
Language and Learning
Language appears to be the key to effective learning in human beings. Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist whose writings have had great influence in U.S. education over the past 25 years, wrote that the primary function of language is social. That is, language is used to communicate meaning from one person to another. The secondary function of language is to serve as a mental tool for constructing meanings for ourselves (Vygotsky, 1984). Thus language and thought are closely related. We use language to help us remember; to find and construct knowledge; to organize our ideas; to make what we know more precise by reorganizing, transforming, and interpreting facts; and to apply what we know to new situations (Fisher & Terry, 1990). Language helps us integrate facts into concepts and ideas. For example, we can know a word like caterpillar when we see it. We may be able to “decode” it and pronounce it correctly, but if we have no concept or idea to go with caterpillar it is without meaning. The young child who sees a caterpillar has difficulty talking about it without knowledge of the word whch names the fuzzy, multilegged insect.
According to Vygotsky (1962), language serves another important purpose in learning. He states that, “What the child can do in cooperation today he can do alone tomorrow. Therefore the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it; it must be aimed not so much at the ripe as at the ripening functions” (p. 104).
This quote refers to the idea of instruction aimed at the zone of proximal development — the gap between a child’s level of actual development (determined by independent problem solving) and the child’s potential development (determined by problem solving supported by an adult or more capable child) (Vygotsky, 1978). To move from actual development to potential development, scaffolding is provided for the learner by a more capable adult or peer. Scaffolds are structures which provide access and safety to out-of-reach places.
The most common learning scaffold used to aid children through the zone of proximal development is language (Bruner, 1986). Parents, teachers, coaches, and other children each talk the novice child through new activities. Gradually as the child gains experience and skill, the “teacher” does less talking and relinquishes control. This is as true of adults holding out their arms and saying, “Come on, that’s good. Take another step. Uh oh. Get up and try again,” to a beginning walker, as it is of a coach telling a novice batter, “Stand this way. Put your feet here. Move your hands down on the bat a little more.” This kind of dialogue appears to be basic to human learning.
Teachers have three primary activities in scaffold learning. First, the teacher provides support through social interaction—primarily by talking to the child. Second, the teacher provides flexibility, and varies his or her action based on feedback from the child. Third, the teacher focuses on just the amount of support a particular child needs. The teacher’s help can be very explicit and direct or can be in the form of vague hints (Dixon-Krauss, 1996). By acting as a facilitator or coach, the teacher creates a positive learning environment and provides assistance to the child. The child, however, must be actively involved in order to construct meaning. Teachers must learn when to help directly and when to act as a catalyst and a resource (Charbonneau & Reider, 1995).
Language, like other skills, is not learned alone, but rather with other knowledge (Chomsky, 1972). Young children have an overwhelming need to find meaning and make sense of what is being read or spoken. Language is not learned sequentially and hierarchically, nor is it learned apart from the culture and environment in which the child lives. Infants do not practice one sound to perfection before attempting to make another sound. They do not then put together those sounds to make words one-by-one until they can utter coherent, complete sentences, and then speak in paragraphs.
Anyone who has observed infants and toddlers knows children babble and “play with language” in a way that perhaps could be termed practice. Observers also realize that language is used to convey meaning. Babies cry when they need attention; they coo in response to others. Toddlers clearly show they have learned some of the powers of language. There is little doubt of their meaning when they say, “No!” or “Mine!” Early childhood is a critical period for the development of communication abilities for both uses of language—communicating with others and communicating with ourselves.
Integrated Thematic Units
Brain research and the psychology of learning support the idea that learning is an integrated process, a process focused on constructing meaning, and a process largely dependent on the ability to communicate. Because of this, teachers have sought ways to facilitate learning based on these principles. One result is the creation and development of integrated thematic or topical units which are widely used in preschools and elementary schools today.
Katz (1988, p. 45) reminds us that “the data (Consortium on Longitudinal Studies, 1983) on children’s learning suggest that what is required in preschool and kindergarten is an intellectually oriented approach in which children interact in small groups as they work together on a variety of projects that help them make sense of their own experience” (p. 45). Topical units are ideal for integrating learning across the curricular areas, creating an environment and climate that facilitate children’s search for meaning, and supporting language development. Early childhood educators need to develop and use integrated units which are developmentally appropriate for preschoolers.
Creating a Thematic Unit
Integrated learning units usually center around a theme or topic, such as safety, belonging, animals, or food. Often a piece of children’s literature is used as the core of a unit. The following three steps are useful in creating an effective thematic unit.
Identify a Theme. The first step in designing an integrated unit is to identify a theme and related subtopics. Questions to consider during this step include:
· What do I hope the children will learn as a result of participating in this unit?
· Is this a theme/topic about which children are naturally curious ?
· Do the children have some understanding and background knowledge about this theme?
Create Specific Activities. The second step involves brainstorming ideas for specific activities within the theme. It is often helpful for two or more teachers to brainstorm together. Consider questions such as:
· What activities lend themselves to this unit?
· Are all of the activities developmentally appropriate?
· Are all of the activities meaningful and worthwhile? (The fact that an activity is “cute” is not a good enough reason to include it.)
Implement the Theme. Finally, you are ready to implement the unit. Questions to ask yourself include:
· What will be an intriguing way to begin the unit?
· Does the room need to be rearranged?
· What resources (e.g., books, math and science manipulatives, guest speakers) do I need?
· How will we end it?
· How will I evaluate the unit’s success?
· How will I assess children’s development?
Careful thought and planning are important. Reflection during and after the unit will help you learn from and refine the unit for future use.
A Sample Thematic Unit
The following integrated thematic unit is centered on the book Mr Archimedes’ Bath by Pamela Allen (1980). This well-loved picture book relates a legend of the Greek mathematician Archimedes. It is said that Archimedes had been studying the displacement of water. “While Archimedes was turning the problem over in his head, he chanced to come to the place of bathing, and there, as he was sitting down in the tub, he noticed that the amount of water which flowed over the tub was equal to the amount by which his body was immersed. This indicated to him a method of solving the problem, and he did not delay, but in his joy leapt out of the tub, and rushing naked towards his home, he cried out with a loud voice that he had found what he sought. For as he ran he repeatedly shouted in Greek, ‘heureka, heureka’” (Clagett, 1968, p. 480).
First, it was decided to focus on the theme “Asking Questions” because this is something young children naturally do, are able to understand, and have had experience doing. The theme relates directly to the core book because scientists and mathematicians, like Archimedes, ask questions. We hope children will learn the value of asking questions and the value of looking for answers. Subtopics related to water, bathing, and animals are included because of the book’s content.
In order to integrate the theme of “asking questions” into many different topic and intelligence areas (e.g., spatial, musical, kinesthetic, interpersonal), the following activities were created.
Water Levels. Fill clear basin or bowl three-quarters full of water. Mark the water level on the outside with masking tape. Provide different size objects and have children predict how the water level will change when they place each object in the water. As children place objects in the water, mark the new level with tape. Guide discussions to help children infer that mass influences the water level in the container.
Equivalency Measures. Use nonstandard capacity containers (e.g., plastic bowls, cups, tops from hairspray cans) and have children estimate which contains the same as the displaced water after the object is removed from the container.
Bath Rituals. Ask children to share their bath rituals by asking questions such as:
· Who helps with your bath?
· Do you have bath toys?
· When do you take baths?
Eureka! and Other Words. Engage children in word play by asking them to share words they use to express excitement, joy, and pleasure. Compile an experience chart of their words.
Pool Play. Set up a plastic pool and let children mark the water level before they get in and after. Ask them to dictate describing words as they play in the water. List their words on an experience chart.
Art. Provide wet chalk and allow children to respond to the story by creating an original picture. Try bubble art by adding food coloring to bubble mixture. Have children blow colored bubbles and catch them on paper. As the bubbles pop they leave a colored ring.
Sink or Float. Provide an assortment of objects which will sink or float. Allow children to put objects in a container of water and then mark on a chart whether the objects sink or float.
Animals. Provide a variety of books that describe the animals (i.e., goat, wombat, kangaroo) shown in Mr. Archimedes’ Bath. Encourage children to look at pictures, ask questions, and listen as information about the animals is read. Child care centers with technology available can encourage children to use early childhood software programs to learn more about the animals in the book.
Designing and implementing integrated thematic units for young children is a developmentally appropriate practice which is supported by both brain research and the psychology of learning. Thematic units greatly enhance learning because they integrate different intelligences and topics into a single lesson which mirrors how young children actually learn. Finally, integrated thematic units make learning and teaching a lot of fun for teachers and children!
Sandra Rollins Hurley, Ph.D., and Sally Blake, Ph.D., are assistant professors at the University of Texas at El Paso, Department of Teacher Education.
Allen, P. (1980). Mr. Archimedes’ Bath. NY: Angus & Robertson, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.
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Clagett, M. (1968, p. 480). Archimedes. In W.D. Halsey (Ed. Dir.) Collier’s Encyclopedia. NY: Crowell-Collier Educational Corporation.
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