Building Blocks: The Foundation of the Themantic Model

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Curriculum, General Interest

Now that we’re beginning to launch the themantic model of teaching and learning, it’s probably a good idea to begin elucidating what the model is all about. But before you think that this will just be another bunch of edujargon or abstract pedagogical theory, it’s important to note that at Themantic Education we realise that any theory is only as valuable as its classroom practice; and the concept of a building block has plenty of practical applications. For one, I think this concept will really help teachers and students understand the requirements of the assessments a lot better. And let’s face it, there is no shortage of ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding the IB Psychology assessments: having the concept of the building block is one tool in an arsenal that can clarify expectations, teach accordingly and enable us to give our students better formative feedback.

In the themantic model we use the term building block to describe “an individual unit of information.” It’s that simple, really.

The IB Psychology course, for instance, is made up of building blocks that fall into the following categories:

  • Behaviours and Mental Processes
  • Variables (Factors that affect, and are affected by, behaviours and mental processes)
  • Studies and Theories
  • Research Methods
  • Ethical Considerations

For example, we can’t exactly teach students about complex etiologies of a disorder like PTSD if we first don’t teach them (or make sure they already know ) what PTSD is. This is a building block they must acquire before moving on. Or it would be difficult to fully understand how testosterone affected behaviour if you didn’t know what testosterone was. Similarly, not knowing what informed consent means makes it pretty difficult to discuss in relation to cognitive research.

This is all common sense, right? I don’t claim to be making revolutionary breakthroughs here; the themantic framework and the accompanying visual metaphors (like “building blocks”) are evolutionary. Our model is an amalgam of a bunch of common sense teaching principles and practices.

A building block is also what makes up the first level of thinking in the themantic model: knowing. We define “knowing” as the ability to accurately recall individual units of relevant information; i.e. the ability to accurately recall relevant building blocks. But it’s only level one because simply knowing a bunch of unrelated details is pretty useless, frankly. But they are essential to have because one can’t build any further without them.

They also form the bulk of examination answers, because they’re required in order to build a solid argument in response to the question asked. If you’re asked to evaluate research, for instance, well you kind of have to describe the research first to contextualize your argument. Or if you’re discussing prosocial behaviour, it might help to provide a brief definition of what prosocial behaviour means.

So for us we use the verb describe as an umbrella term that includes state, identify, outline, define, etc. What these verbs all have in common is they are requiring the communication of a singular unit of information; they are requiring students to demonstrate “knowledge.”

But when IB examiners in subject reports use the phrase “descriptive” and make comments like, “in general the students’ answers are too descriptive,” what they mean is that students are spending too much time dumping building blocks on the page: they’re defining key terms, including irrelevant details in their study summaries, providing unnecessary anecdotal examples of the behaviours they’re trying to explain, etc.

What students need to be able to do after they’ve acquired the building blocks is to make significant connections between these blocks in response to a question or problem. For example, explaining how a variable affects a particular behaviour, or explaining why a particular ethical consideration is relevant in a particular field of study, or how a particular research method is used in another area of study, etc. It’s in making the connections that learning expands and understanding deepens.

In the process of completely deconstructing the IB Psychology course to write IB Psychology: A Student’s Guide I realised that for years I’ve been drowning my kids in too many unnecessary building blocks. I would create 1,000 word study summaries because I thought the textbooks “lacked details.” (You can find these summaries linked throughout this blog). In fact, I was approaching publishers to get these published as a collection; but after smashing apart the learning outcomes, deconstructing the assessment objectives and in the process devising the themantic approach to curriculum construction, I realised that I would be doing kids and teachers a huge disservice by giving such detailed study summaries: we only need to know a study in as much detail as it enables us to significantly connect it with other building blocks. For example, I don’t need to describe all of Schachter and Singer’s two factor experiment – their report is pages and pages long! All I need to be able to do is describe the relevant details in the detail required so I can explain how it supports (i.e. is related to)  the Two Factor Theory; or explain how it demonstrates ethical considerations, or research methods.

What we find in the context of IB assessments, that studies and theories only need to be described in about 100 to 150 words; anything else is superfluous (I’ll be publishing heaps of sample answers soon to demonstrate this). By understanding this, we can drastically reduce our content and streamline our lesson planning and teaching.

One of our primary goals at T.E is to improve education by getting back to basics: we need to do less and we need to do it better! We want to construct units for teachers that have very carefully selected amounts of information that students require to develop understanding of key concepts. We also do this through research and development: IB Psychology: A Student’s Guide was trialed on my own students and on more than one occasion I threw out a whole lesson/section because there were far too many irrelevant and unnecessary building blocks that students struggled to acquire.

Or if you think you’ve got an awesome idea for a themantic unit in any subject, let us know and we can help design the resources and get it published. We want to grow to provide well-designed curricula for teachers across subjects, grade levels and examining bodies.

But getting back to the here and now, realistically we have to realize that not all students will acquire all building blocks and be able to make significant connections between them…and that’s OK. Some students might be acquiring the language and just picking up a couple of new words in a lesson and getting some language practice is great for them! That’s where they’re at and it’s fine. Or other students might have a limited cognitive capacity to deal with the nature of the subject they’re enrolled in and we can’t expect them to process, acquire and connect information as readily as other students. That’s fine, too. Let them take their time to process and acquire the building blocks that they can. And let other students in the class help them out with it.

But we must give our students the building blocks to play with. Whether that’s through lectures, a video, in a reading (e.g. textbook), in an activity or (ideally) in multiple mediums: we have to make the building blocks tangible and visible. Just talking through a range of terms, ideas and details and expecting kids to understanding and retain is unrealistic.

That’s one of the pitfalls of being a subject specialist teacher: it becomes increasingly difficult to get down to the level of the novice; but that’s what we must do. We have curricula that are being written for us by University Professors and education administrators who are so far removed from the experience of a high school kid first encountering a subject (and with many other subjects competing for that student’s attention as well) that the result is a burdensome level of content: too many building blocks with not enough time to allow students to process and make connections.

As much as possible I’ve tried to fight this trend, and by combining the core and options is one key way in reducing content, increasing understanding (which we define as the ability to explain significant relationships in response to a question or problem).

My goal is to make teaching simple again: I want to give teachers the curriculum materials they need so they can walk into class with a handful of building blocks, a guiding question and throw them at the kids and say, “Here, play with these and see what you come up with.”

For my whole career I’ve been underestimating just how many blocks I’ve been throwing at my kids on a daily basis and how little time I’ve been giving them to process them in order to make significant connections. I’ve never enjoyed teaching as much as I do now since designing lessons using the themantic model and cutting back the content. I also have questions at a depth of thinking that I haven’t encountered before.

But this is just common sense, right? We have stuff we want to teach kids so we walk in the lesson and we allow them to access that stuff. There’s no need to over think it, really.

To recap: when we talk about knowing, describing or building blocks, it all means the same thing: students can communicate comprehension of individual units of information.

So if building blocks are our foundationsrelationship chains are the framework of the themantic model. A relationship chain is what we call the significant connection of building blocks in relation to a question or problem: but that’s another post.