Thematic? Holistic? Integrated? What do they all mean?

Travis DixonCurriculum, Teaching Ideas

Thematic, holistic and integrated are all just the same rose by another name.

If you’ve been following the conversations on the OCC and facebook forums, you’ve probably read, seen and heard people discussing approaches to teaching IB Psychology using terms like holistic, thematic and integrated. You might have even heard these terms on a workshop. For new teachers, this might be quite confusing, so in this post I’ll just quickly clarify what these terms mean when applied to teaching IB Psychology.

The short answer is: they all mean the same thing.


To approach something holistically means to take into consideration the interaction of many factors. So a holistic approach to understanding psychology is to try to understand behaviour by looking at how biological, cognitive, social and cultural factors all influence one another and cause particular phenomena.

For example, if we’re trying to understand why people fall in love, we need to consider internal biological processes, thought process, as well as social and cultural influences. To focus on just one of these to explain the phenomenon of falling in love would be reductionist.

It is necessary to adopt a holistic approach when studying the options topics in IB Psychology, as students need to understand how the three approaches interact in these behaviours. So when people talk about a “holistic” approach to teaching IB Psychology, they’re referring to teaching students to understand how variables from the three approaches interact in behaviour.


The term “integrated” is perhaps more specific to IB Psychology because this syllabus is structured with different approaches and options. The common course structure that people adopt is what we call the “linear approach,” which means teaching the core (three approaches) one-by-one and then teaching the options. This linear approach a very ineffective way to approach the course, for reasons I’ll go into in my next post.

When people talk about an “integrated” approach it means the same thing as “holistic”: combining the three approaches together with aspects of the options. So essentially, holistic and integrated mean the same thing when it comes to structuring an IB Psychology course.


The term “thematic” teaching of IB Psychology has also started to bounce around quite a bit. From what I can see, people are using the word “thematic” as a way to describe a style of teaching IB Psychology that in practice means the same as an integrated or holistic approach. Indeed, this is how I was using the term when I was first writing a textbook that combined the core and options.

In a thematic approach, instead of teaching in the order of the curriculum, you can use an overarching theme that ties the core and options together in a holistic/integrated fashion. Themes could be depression, criminology, love, relationships, stress, childhood, etc.

So you can see that these three terms are all referring to the same way of structuring the course, so there’s no need to be too confused.


But if we think about it, the linear approach is also thematic: the theme in the biological approach is biology, and the same for the other approaches. Having said this, if you are dropping the linear and adopting this approach that combines core and options, I think the term “thematic” is probably the best to use most people will not what you’re referring to. That is of course, until you start using our textbook and you can see the themantic model of curriculum with its simplistic complexities 🙂

So there’s no need to be confused by this terminology; all these approaches are just calling the same rose by another name.

In my next post I’ll explain why adopting a linear approach is a bad idea.