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How to take a thematic approach to the curriculum

Thematic approaches to subjects can sometimes lack coherency, says Mark Enser, but he has some tricks to solve the problem

thematic curriculum

Thematic approaches to subjects can sometimes lack coherency, says Mark Enser, but he has some tricks to solve the problem

Geography is a fascinating subject. One term you can be studying cities, their growth and challenges, and then the next term the way rivers shape the land. A topic on tectonic hazards is followed by one looking at deforestation in the Amazon. The programme of study might evolve as a teacher takes an interest in the issue of plastics in the ocean and so that topic appears sandwiched between one on migration and something on the geography of crime.

This kind of thematic approach is very common in the school geography curriculum and it is a great way to introduce pupils to the sheer breadth of our discipline. However, such thematic approaches do have an inherent weakness, though. They can make the nature of a subject hard to ascertain.

On the surface of it, a study of tectonics seems to have little in common with one on deforestation. We can end up with a curriculum where each topic stands as a distinct silo of information with little to draw everything together into a cohesive whole.

So what can we do to make a thematic approach feel more coherent? I think that combining themes with context is the answer.

Let us take the example of regional geography, which involves taking key aspects of the subject and studying them in the context of a particular place in order to determine the characteristics of that region.

Study the themes themselves first

One pitfall with taking a regional approach is that the detail of the processes is lost. You might learn a little about the climate of Brazil without ever really understanding how climate is determined more widely. You might study the growth of cities in one location, but miss the point that these same pressures are felt globally.

The solution to this problem is to carefully build up to a regional approach after studying the necessary themes to make sense of it. For example, our Year 8 pupils study the region of East Africa. This builds on work they did in Year 7 on contrasting economic development and on how countries develop into Newly Emerging Economies (NEEs). They have by this time also looked at world climate and it also follows work done in Year 8 on tectonics.

Apply the themes to your new topic

Having studied these themes, pupils next look at the East Africa region in terms of its climate, landscape (including how tectonic processes continue to shape it today), current level of development and the rapid growth of industry there.

Highlight the links between themes

Make it clear to pupils how seemingly disparate themes are connected. For example, we discuss how tectonic forces create the Great Rift Valley, but then look at how this has implications for tourism, mining and even water availability. This leads on to pupils starting to link different climates with the impact on economic development, and all of this to the growth of cities.  

Don’t rule out continuing the approach at GCSE

Even at GCSE, there is room for further regional geography, as long as you map it to your specification. We could take Nigeria as our focus for a low-income country (LIC) or NEE and study its economic growth and the role of transnational corporations (TNCs). Then, we can look at Lagos for a study in urban challenges before tying in examples of water resource management at a national and local, sustainable, scale.  

When done well, taking this approach provides pupils with the depth of understanding that can support them in their exams and beyond, overcoming the issue we sometimes face in geography of providing a very superficial look at places. If we are not careful Bangladesh becomes no more than a place at risk of rising sea levels, China becomes over-population and the whole of Africa becomes underdevelopment personified.

We know that places are more complicated than this, but this can be hard to communicate to our pupils if we always reach for a place to illustrate just one thing.

Mark Enser is Head of Geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His first book Making Every Geography Lesson Count is out soon with Crown House. He tweets @EnserMark

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