CESJDS, as many schools do, employs theme-based learning as an instructional strategy in a variety of settings. Each year, we also establish a school-wide learning theme. This year we have chosen Derkh Eretz, ethical behavior to serve as that connective thread. What is the educational value of instruction based around themes, rather than just teaching each subject area individually?
The Soviet psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, conducted significant research into the role language plays in cognitive development. His findings suggest that there is an explicit connection between speech/language and the development of mental concepts. The way we speak and the language we use helps us learn information and gives it meaning. When we use a specific theme for instruction, we enable the human brain to establish meaning and assign value.
A second reason for using thematic learning is to provide a cognitive "hook" to store the information. A theme creates a relevant context for learning and serves as an aid for remembering what is taught. When we use a theme as the connective thread between discreet learning, students have a place to put, organize and recall what they have learned. In this way, thematic learning structures teaching in a way that supports student growth.
Cognitive science also suggests that an interdisciplinary approach to learning leads to an increase in understanding and application of general concepts. Using a theme as an organizing principle enables teachers to provide an interdisciplinary approach which is useful to students in better understanding and then applying the knowledge and information they have learned.
Finally, there is research that indicates that a thematic/interdisciplinary approach is better suited to teach students cognitive skills such as cooperation, problem solving, and the ability to see connections. Using a theme sets up a structure whereby students naturally will need to develop these types of thinking and working skills.
When a school or a teacher chooses a theme for learning, the idea often emerges from a desire to emphasize a specific topic. Educators can then use that topic to teach the general skills, knowledge and concepts that are required within the curriculum. But beyond emphasizing a particular topic, cognitive science indicates that thematic learning is a powerful instructional strategy for learning in general.