Thematic Instruction - A Process for Theme Selection


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Overview and Purpose

Watch this short video for an overview of thematic instruction.

Educator Elena Aguilar on How to Teach Interdisciplinary Projects

For themes to be useful they must be meaningful, authentic and relevant. To be effective teachers must choose a theme that has these characteristics and will also meet educational requirements. There is little guidance available for teachers who would like to adapt part or all of their curriculum to thematic instruction to choose an effective theme.

Through this mini-course, a teacher can walk through a creative process that will serve as a framework for creating possible themes and testing them against proposed learning objectives. The process will help a teacher reliably produce well-reasoned and complex themes, that make sense to both student and teacher, and that will be naturally applicable in the learning environment.

Key questions that will be covered:

  • What are the benefits and challenges of implementing thematic instruction?
  • What are the characteristics of an effective theme?
  • How can the 40-40-40 content rule be used to help refine theme options?
  • How can theme options be evaluated for application and implementation?

In addition, through the activities in this course, students will create a small but powerful portfolio of artifacts that can be used to socialize and collaborate theme proposals with colleagues and stakeholders. This will include the definition of content priorities, an effective thematic statement, a graphic organizer and a rubric describing expected characteristics of an effective theme.

Needs Assessment

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There are many sources that advocate thematic instruction, as well as some that show the difficulties of implementing thematic instruction. Most studies of thematic instruction stress the importance of choosing an effective theme, and some highlight the qualities or characteristics of an effective theme. However, according to Tessier and Tessier, “Lipson, et al. (1993) cautions against carelessly choose non-thought provoking themes that are superficially applied (“themes of convenience”) without strong integration into the study subject and specific objectives and activities clearly connected to the theme."

Reference: Tessier, L., & Tessier, J. (2015). Theme-based courses foster student learning and promote comfort with learning new material. Journal of Learning through the Arts, 11(1). Retrieved from

Performance Objectives

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The process outlined in this mini-course aims to provide a framework for selecting an effective theme that will thought-provoking and reflective. By the end of the course, participants will be able to:

  • Recognize the various terms used interchangeably with Thematic Instruction and understand benefits and barriers of thematic instruction.
  • Write an example of an effective thematic statement that communicates the topic, benefits and relevance of the theme to stakeholders and students.
  • Deduce key content concepts in balance with curriculum requirements.
  • Analyze theme options against a variety of criteria.
  • Construct and apply a sample assessment framework designed to evaluate the quality of a theme.

Course Units

Photo by Andria Auerrell

Unit 1: Introduction to Thematic Instruction

Learners will identify and describe aspects of thematic learning including terminology, taxonomy and characteristics of an effective theme.

Lesson One - Pedagogical Basis for Thematic Instruction

In this lesson you will: Learn the basics of thematic instruction including terminology, benefits, barriers and pedagogical taxonomy.

Lesson Two - Characteristics of an Effective Theme

In this lesson you will: Learn the characteristics of an effective theme and effective thematic statements.

Unit 2: Assessing Requirements and Contextualizing Content

Learners will review and prioritize curriculum standards and requirements for integration under a potential theme.

Lesson Three - Needs Assessment

In this lesson you will: Investigate and prioritize curriculum standards and requirements.

Lesson Four - Contextualizing Content

In this lesson you will: Contextualize content using the 40-40-40 Content Rule.

Unit 3: Testing Theme Ideas: Refine and Evaluate

Learners will learn to organize and assess themes ideas against a variety of criteria by constructing a sample rubric.

Lesson 5 - Refining Theme Ideas

In this lesson you will: Review theme ideas from different perspectives and compare them with a graphic organizer.

Lesson 6 - Assessing Theme Quality

In this lesson you will: Incorporate what you've learned in Lessons 1-5 and apply them in a rubric of your creation.

Navigation Notes

▶ When you click on a resource link you will need to use your browser's back arrow to return to the lesson. It is recommended that you right-click on lesson review links to open quizzes in another tab.

▶ Note that there are navigational links at the top and bottom of each lesson.

References and Extended Resources


Extended Resources