Why teach themantically?

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Criminology, Curriculum, General Interest, Themantics

Why teach thematically?

If you think about it, teaching by the core approaches (or levels of analysis) in a linear way IS a thematic approach – the themes are biology, cognition and socio-culture, and then the themes are abnormal psych, health, etc. These themes tie together topics so by the end of the unit students have a broad conceptual understanding. For example, “biology interacts with behaviour.” (This is what the principles are aimed at achieving, which is why they should be taught at the end of the units, not at the beginning).

But my contention is that students develop this same conceptual understand by doing at the END of the course (when you’ve got lots of revision time because you’ve cut content by teaching themantically) and then getting students to think about the three approaches. Or even at the end of year one before their first end of year exams (which I’ve just done with my kids). It literally took 30 minutes for them to grasp the idea of approaches, after brain dumping studies and then categorizing them based on similarities.

Students will also have the added bonus of having a far greater understanding that human behaviour is complex, and is the product of the interaction of multiple factors, because the integration has happened throughout the course.

Teaching through individual approaches is promoting reductionism, the very thing we’re trying to eradicate.

And teaching to these big conceptual understandings is really important, because what we know from cognitive science is that time deletes the details and what is left is the gist, IF it’s been taught well. Kids in 20, 10 or perhaps 2 years’ time won’t remember Caspi et al (2002), but they’ll remember that abuse as a child + genetics increases chances of violence; they won’t remember Lyons-Padilla et al, but they will remember that marginalization of Muslim immigrants could increase radical extremism and support for extremist groups; they won’t remember Loftus and Palmer, but they’ll know that our memory is susceptible to being influenced and misinformed, etc. etc.

Of course there are exceptions – they probably will remember Phineas, Asch, Zimbardo, etc., because these are pretty sensational. But they won’t remember most of the specifics of what we teach.

This is why we need to be teaching to the ideas, not the studies. Put the concepts first and choose studies that demonstrate these concepts. The research, in my mind, should always play second fiddle to the important ideas we’re trying to teach. Moreover, if we have these concepts themed throughout units, it increases the chances that students will grasp these big ideas.

And it’s through teaching to ideas that we’ll sow the seeds of individual and social change, which should be a primary goal of education.

Even teaching research methods and ethics makes sense to do this in relation to ALL three approaches. Students can discuss similarities and differences of the use of experiments when studying biology compared with culture, or deception in cognitive versus abnormal psych’ studies, for instance. I would love to have one hour per research method/ethic for each topic that kids need to understand these in relation to, but that would add another 30 hours of teaching to the course, so I will try to cut this down to about 8 hours during our review unit at the end of the course.

What is teaching “themantically?” 

Thematic teaching is not a new idea and it’s attractive for the reasons I’ve stated above, and others. But we can’t just be teaching to the abstract concepts themed throughout our units. This is where teaching thematically is limited – if we only deal in the abstract, kids won’t have anything concrete to build on. Abstract conceptual understanding is built on concrete knowledge. The themantic approach simply aligns the concrete with the abstract. In the themantic model:

  1. Every lesson has new concrete details for kids to learn and comprehend, plus a guiding question to help them realize the significance of these details (the amount of details (“building blocks”) have been carefully selected to be enough for a one hour lesson).
  2. Every lesson is connected conceptually to the previous and following lesson, because what we know from cognitive and neuroscience is that learning is about repetition, rehearsal and making connections. The more rehearsal we allow students, the stronger the memory trace and the more chances it will be remembered. The themes and recurring ideas, the stronger the learning.
  3. Individual lessons build and then form one topic (e.g. neurotransmission, hormones, social identity theory).
  4. Each topic is connected to the topic before, the topic after and also connected in a way to the broader theme of the unit. So learning about culture values (culture of honour) builds on learning about testosterone and then leads into social cognitive theory.

Abstract conceptual understanding is built on concrete knowledge.

It’s pretty intricate, and perhaps won’t make heaps of sense until after you give it a go, but it’s based on some pretty solid common sense and basic pedagogical principles.

How could the IB Psych’ curriculum be improved? – One Suggestion

What’s a little disappointing about the new curriculum is that while it means well, it’s not the best for facilitating conceptual understanding because we’ve put topics ahead of the ideas. For example, we’ve prescribed the multi-store and working memory models, and social cognitive and social identity theory. These should be moved to the “guidance” column and in their place we should have concepts like: memory storage, working memory, social influence, etc. We could then even make it more specific like “factors influencing memory storage/working memory,” “how social influences affects behaviour,” etc. We have this done right at the biological approach, but not consistently throughout the others. Kids won’t remember the phonological loop or the MSM in ten years’ time – but they will remember what working memory is and how memories are stored, if the course is taught in a way that puts these ideas ahead of the models themselves. This is where the themantic approach can be beneficial because these topics aren’t taught as standalones, but their ideas thread throughout PTSD.

“Cutting Content”


I’ll make it clear now, too, that I talk a lot about “cutting content.” What needs to be read in tandom whenever I say “cutting content” is also “increasing understanding.” By cutting content I’m referring to the individual details, the “building blocks” as we call them. Why teach 10 different behaviours in the biological approach when you could teach one? (e.g. Violence). Cut the content by eliminating nine behaviours and the invariable fact that the nine biological variables are going to be influencing those nine behaviours and integrate them, and also see how they relate to sociocultural and cognitive factors.

I can hear someone now saying – “but by teaching ten behaviours they get a broader understanding of psychology.” Possibly, some might. But most kids will be working so hard just to comprehend the details, that they won’t fully understand them. How do I know this? Because every year examiner’s say that kids’ answers are too descriptive and only 5% of kids get over 70%. They’re not developing deep understanding, because if they were this wouldn’t be happening. I say it all the time – the hardest part about teaching IB Psychology isn’t the content we have to teach, it’s the amount of content we can’t.

By the end of my criminology unit I pose this question to students: How could a variation of the MAOA gene increase the possibility of violence? They have Caspi et al., to show that it does increase the possibility, and this is a good study to begin with.

But then we look at findings from Raine, that show that people with MAOA-L have increased amygdala reactivity and decreased PFC in response to emotional stimuli. Now, the role of the amygdala in emotional responses (e.g. aggressive/violence reactions to social threat) has been an underlying theme throughout the unit/chapter, as has the role of the PFC in begin able to regulate and control this reaction. So now students (after giving them two full hours simply to solve this problem by themselves, because thinking takes time) will come up with an explanation along the lines of:

The MAOA-L gene can influence violence because it might increase the chances of an individual reacting violently when they are in a socially threatening situation. This could be explained through Raine et al’s study that showed a difference in brain function in people with the MAOA-L compared with controls. Because they have higher amygdala reactivity to social threat, this could increase the activation of the HPA-axis and the release of stress hormones, increasing their physiological arousal. Through this stress response and activation of the amygdala, the individual has the increased physiological arousal and emotional state that accompanies high levels of aggression. Moreover, with the reduction of the function of the PFC they may lack the ability to regulate their impulsive reaction. Put simply, when someone is threatened, they are physically and emotionally read to react violently, and they lack the ability to think through their actions so they could react violently without thinking. This could explain the correlation between violence and the MAOA-L gene variation that is commonly found in research.

Now, I dare someone to tell me that my approach to teaching genetics is “lacking content” or won’t be “sufficient for exam success.”

What’s more, just before learning about genetics, students have learned about the social cognitive theory, so for any essay question about genes and behaviour, they have a very good counter-argument (that’s pretty easy to comprehend) for Caspi et al’s study – it could be that those who were abused as kids learned antisocial behaviour and attitudes through observation. Or even with the above study of genes, kids know that it’s not just the MAOA gene, because they’ve looked at a similar relationship with serotonin and testosterone, so they could say that this effect might be moderated by these variables.

I don’t “cut content” in order to find a cheats way through teaching psychology – I cut content because abstract conceptual understand is based on concrete knowledge of content, but if we have too much concrete we bury kids brain’s in comprehension, and we run out of time to extend their thinking above and beyond the superficial.

Final Thought

I know all this seems pretty abstract at the moment, which is why I’m excited for the release of IB Psychology: A Student’s Guide (due early August). My approach to teaching the course is coming under some heavy fire from the vets, but I’m OK with this. I want it to be challenged, if for no other reason than it gives me the chance to keep talking about it.