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Instructional Theories

Module by: Fred Mednick. E-mail the author

Figure 1: Essential elements for an effective mix of teaching strategies
Choosing the Right Ingredients
Choosing the Right Ingredients (bowl.jpg)

Thematic Learning


Thematic instruction is the organization of a curriculum around "themes." Thematic instruction integrates basic disciplines like reading, writing, math, and science with the exploration of a broad subject such as communities, rain forests, river basins, the use of energy, etc.

Basic Elements

Thematic instruction is based on the idea that people acquire knowledge best when learning in the context of a coherent "whole," and when they can connect what they're learning to the real world. Thematic instruction seeks to put the teaching of cognitive skills such as reading, mathematics, science, and writing in the context of a real-world subject that is both specific enough to be practical, and broad enough to allow creative exploration.

Thematic instruction usually occurs within an entire grade level of students. Teachers in the various disciplines in that particular grade work together as a team to design curriculum, instruction methods, and assessment around a pre-selected theme.

Typical steps include:

  1. Choosing a theme -Themes often involve a large, integrated system (such as a city or an ecosystem) or a broad concept (such as interconnectivity or weather). Instructors often strive to connect the theme to the students' everyday lives. In some cases, students participate in choosing the theme or themes.
  2. Designing the integrated curriculum - The teachers involved must organize the learning objectives of their core curriculum (both process skills and content knowledge) around the theme. In the study of a river basin, for instance, math might involve calculating water flow and volume; social studies could look at the nature of river communities; science might study phenomena like weather and floods; and literature could study books and novels that focus on rivers, such as the works of Mark Twain. The initial design requires considerable work on the part of teachers. Again, sometimes students help design the curriculum.
  3. Designing the instruction - This usually involves making changes to the class schedule, combining hours normally devoted to specific topics, organizing field trips, teaching in teams, bringing in outside experts, and so on.
  4. Encouraging presentation and celebration - Because thematic instruction is often project-oriented, it frequently involves students giving collective presentations to the rest of the school or the community. Plus, students commonly create extensive visual displays.

Thematic instruction can be a powerful tool for reintegrating the curriculum and eliminating the isolated, reductionist nature of teaching that is centered around disciplines rather than experience. It requires a lot of hard, initial design work, plus, a substantial restructuring of teacher relationships and class schedules.

Recommended Reading: (Online only)

Theme Pages: thematic units and lesson plans, resource pages, book activities, books, and professional resources organized by theme.

The Teachers' Corner: additional thematic units and lesson plans.

BBC Online: excellent thematic units and connections to other online resources.

Can Teach: an excellent guide not just to thematic units but also to skill-building for students.

Assignment 1: Generating Themes

Assignment 1: Generating Themes


One Way

Click on the link in color at the top of this page. When it appears, press "Save" and name the file so that you can work on this assignment "off-line." You can type right on the assignment template. Be sure to save your assignment on a disk or on your computer hard drive.

Another Way

Copy the text below, and save it to your disk or computer.

GOAL: To generate useable themes for your classroom and to engage your students in the planning process.

GIVE: Feedback to others on their assignments at the TWB Learning Cafe.

Assignment 1: Generating Themes

  1. Write a list of 5 possible themes for your class.
  2. Next to each of the 5 themes, quickly write one phrase or sentence describing it further.
  3. Look at your list, and choose one. Write 3-4 sentences telling more about it. Why might it be a useful theme? How does it fit into your overall educational plan?
  4. Choose another theme from your list and write 3-4 sentences telling more about it.
  5. Ask your students what themes they are interested in exploring. Provide a written list of their responses.

The Role of Archetypes

What is an archetype?

An archetype is a mythic figure or image (either real, imagined, or historic) that can serve as a guide for students in their learning; in this way it is similar to thematic-based learning. For example, a teacher might introduce to the students the life and work of Leonardo Da Vinci, a fifteenth-century Italian scientist, inventor, and artist. The teacher might share the fact that Da Vinci wrote in notebooks, and that these notebooks were a place for him to record his observations such as the movement of water or the flight of birds. Da Vinci's notebooks became a place where he could think about questions like: how does a bird's wing help a bird to fly? In addition, when he pondered a question or idea, Da Vinci rarely looked at it from a single perspective. In his notebooks, you see sketches of the same flower or a bird's wing drawn from several different points of view.

Da Vinci was an observer. Da Vinci was a recorder. Da Vinci asked questions. Da Vinci was curious. Da Vinci was multi-dimensional learner in looking at things from several points of view.

Whether you are teaching science, math, art, language, or any other subject a teacher can always refer to the qualities that Da Vinci embodied as a way of guiding students in their studies.

An image works just as well. For example, a teacher might use the image of a tree as the guiding idea or theme - with its transportation system within for making and carrying food; for the physical structure of its roots, trunk, branches and leaves; as well as for the interdependent, living ecological systems it supports and sustains.

A teacher can decide who or what will be the guiding mythic figure or image in advance or during the course of study as it arises naturally in working with the students.


What mythic figure or image (either real, imagined, or historic) might serve as a guide for your students in their learning? Read what others have said. Add your thoughts. Join your global colleagues in conversation at the TWB Learning Cafe.

Introduction to Cooperative Learning

What is it?

Cooperative Learning is an instructional technique that uses positive interdependence between learners in order for learning to occur.


Research shows that both competitive and cooperative interactions are a healthy part of a child's repertoire of behavior. By second grade, however, urban children have effectively extinguished their cooperative behavior and persist in competition, even when it's counterproductive. By deliberately developing cooperative techniques, educators aim to correct the unconscious societal and educational bias that favors competition.

Patterns for student interaction are called "structures." Together, teachers and students develop a repertoire of these structures. When the teacher announces that the class will use a particular exercise to explore today's lesson topic, students know what type of interaction to expect. For example, when the teacher says the class will use the "Think-Pair-Share" exercise to study African wildlife, students know they will work independently to write down their thoughts on elephants or lions, then find a partner, share their ideas with their partner, and probe each other for complete understanding.

It is up to the instructor to integrate the interactive exercises with the specific lesson content. The teacher must give careful thought to who should collaborate with whom and why; how to manage the classroom while unleashing cooperative activity; and how to balance the attention to both content and cooperative skill-building.

Features of Cooperative Learning

Cooperative Learning is most successful when the following elements are in place:

  1. Distribution of leadership
  2. Creation of heterogeneous groups
  3. Promotion of positive interdependence and individual accountability
  4. Development of positive social skills
  5. Empowerment of the group to work together

Distribution of Leadership: All students can be leaders. They can also surprise you with their ability to rise to the occasion.

Creation of Heterogeneous Groups: You can either randomly place students in groups counting off by 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s, or 5s and putting all of the "1s" together, the "2s" in another group, and so on. Another way to do it is to review the learning styles and create groups that reflect different kinds of learning.

Positive Interdependence and Individual Accountability: Students need to depend upon each other and work cooperatively. They need to know their roles, what they are expected to achieve, how to value their piece of the puzzle, and how to demonstrate that it benefits the group. In this way, materials are shared; group members create one group-product group members are given common tasks; and roles are rotated amongst the members.

Social Skills: Discussion, observation, and understanding is key. From time to time, the atmosphere in the class must be such that time is set aside to examine what is going on; how people feel; what could be the best way of going about conducting the business of learning.

Empowering The Group : The teacher is not there to "rescue" students from problems or settle arguments. The teacher suggests solutions and promotes social skills by having the group itself come to a fair conclusion.

Cooperative Learning depends upon several variables:

  1. The teacher's sense that the class can take this on.
  2. Just enough structure and just enough freedom. Keep it simple in the beginning.
  3. Make certain that everyone knows what is going on.
  4. Make certain that methods are clear - explaining how the group will work.
  5. Make certain that each individual is engaged.
  6. Make certain that groups do not exceed 5 people.
  7. Arrange the room so that the environment works well with a group.
  8. Students need to know there is a reward and celebration for working together, rather than sorting themselves as winners and losers.

How It Works


  1. Groups of 4-5 students are created.
  2. The teacher describes each role (below), and either the teacher or the group assigns a responsibility/role to each member of the group:
    • Reader - Reads the written instructions out loud to his/her group.
    • Time-Keeper - Periodically, tells the group how much time is left for the activity.
    • Scribe - Takes notes and writes down each person's response.
    • Includer - Actively encourages each person to share ideas in the discussion.
    • Reporter - Organizes the presentation and shares the group consensus.
  3. Each group is given a current event, for example. The Reader reads the written instructions out loud to his/her group.
  4. The group decides how it will provide a response to the current event by demonstrating: a) what the event is - for example, crime in the neighborhood; b) why they think it may be occurring; c) what the current plan is for dealing with the problem; d) advantages and disadvantages of that plan and why; and e) what they would do, and why it is better than another plan.
  5. Each student in the group is given the task of exploring all of the issues above (a-e). Those responses are shared within their group. The Includer makes sure each person's voice is heard and encourages every member of the group to participate. The Scribe writes down all of their responses. The Time-Keeper keeps track of time.
  6. Each group reaches a consensus on the response to present to the other groups.
  7. The group decides how the information will be presented.
  8. The group makes a presentation. The Reporter might present the consensus, or set it up so that several people in the group present.
  9. The group conducts an evaluation of performance.

Rules of Conduct

  1. Teacher must not "judge" the group or berate individual members.
  2. All positions are respected, whether or not the rest of the class agrees.
  3. No one may force anyone else to agree with their answer.
  4. No negative comments about oneself or others are allowed.
  5. Teacher praises with description, rather than evaluation. In other words, spend your time focusing on what good things students did, such as giving specific examples of their courtesy and support. Avoid statements such as "You did a good job" or "Your group was better than the first group."

Assignment 2: Cooperative Learning Groups

Assignment 2: Cooperative Learning Groups


One Way

Click on the link in color at the top of this page. When it appears, press "Save" and name the file so that you can work on this assignment "off-line." You can type right on the assignment template. Be sure to save your assignment on a disk or on your computer hard drive.

Another Way

Copy the text below, and save it to your disk or computer.

GOAL: To put into practice a Cooperative Learning activity with your students, and to record what you noticed.

GIVE: Feedback to others on their assignments at the TWB Learning Cafe.

Assignment 2: Cooperative Learning Groups

  1. Follow steps 1-9 in "How It Works." You may wish to choose a current event or any other relevant topic for discussion in this Cooperative Learning activity. Each group can work on the same issue or different topics.
  2. Write 4-5 paragraphs about what you noticed, what you learned in doing this with your students, and what things you would add or delete to make the process more effective for your class the next time.


To further your understanding of Cooperative Learning, read the article below and share with your colleagues at the TWB Learning Cafe.

Required Reading :

What is the Collaborative Classroom?

PDF version below:

What is the Collaborative Classroom?


What interesting things did you learn from the article or from actually doing the Cooperative Learning activity with your students? Read what others have said. Add your thoughts. Join your global colleagues in conversation at the TWB Learning Cafe.

Outcome-Based Learning


In Outcome-Based Learning, all school programs and instructional efforts are designed to have produced specific, lasting results in students by the time they leave school.

Basic Elements

The principles followed by Outcome-Based Learning practitioners include:

  1. Clarity of focus around significant outcomes, which are defined by each school.
  2. Expansion of available time and resources so that all students can succeed.
  3. Consistent, high expectations of 100% success.
  4. Explicit relationships between the learning experience and the outcomes.

Under Outcome-Based Learning, curriculum design includes these steps:

  • Discern future conditions
  • Derive exit outcomes
  • Develop performance indicators
  • Design learning experiences
  • Determine instructional strategies
  • Deliver instruction
  • Document results
  • Determine advancement

Character Education

This curriculum method revolves around developing "good character" in students by practicing and teaching moral values and decision making.

Basic Elements

Character Education assumes that schools don't just have the responsibility to help students get "smart"; they also have the responsibility to cultivate basic moral values to guide their students in their behavior throughout life.

Character Education teaches students to understand, commit to, and act on shared ethical values - in other words, "know the good, desire the good, and do the good." Typical core values include: respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, fairness, caring, and community participation.

Schools committed to Character Education tend to:

  • Emphasize how adults model values in the classroom as well as in their everyday interactions.
  • Help students clarify their values and build personal bonds and responsibilities to one another.
  • Use the traditional curriculum as a vehicle for teaching values and examining moral questions.
  • Encourage moral reflection through debate, journals, and discussion.
  • Encourage values in action through service and other community involvement strategies.
  • Support teacher development and dialogue among educators on moral dimensions of their job.

The influence of Character Education is evident in the outcomes of many school districts emphasizing qualities such as "contributor to the community," and "ethical global citizen."

Assignment 3: Reflecting Upon Instructional Theories

Assignment 3: Reflecting Upon Instructional Theories


One Way

Click on the link in color at the top of this page. When it appears, press "Save" and name the file so that you can work on this assignment "off-line." You can type right on the assignment template. Be sure to save your assignment on a disk or on your computer hard drive.

Another Way

Copy the text below, and save it to your disk or computer.

GOAL: To deepen your understanding of instructional theories and to consider what works best for your classroom practice.

GIVE: Feedback to others on their assignments at the TWB Learning Cafe.

Assignment 3: Reflecting Upon Instructional Theories

You have been introduced to the following:

  • Thematic Learning
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Outcome-Based Learning
  • Character Education
  1. Discuss the above instructional theories in 3 - 4 paragraphs explaining which ones you are most attracted to and why. Which ones would work best in your class, and with your overall educational plan? Explain.
  2. What are 3 specific ways you can apply the theories to your teaching?


Usually, you just click "Next" to go to the next page. When you finish a section, however, (as you're about to do when you finish reading these two paragraphs), you need to click on the "Outline" button, which is on the bottom, right-hand side of the page. Look underneath the blue bar and click on the word "Outline."

When you click on "Outline," a screen will come up that will show you the outline for Course 2. Look for the next section to read and click on the first topic in that next section. For example, when you get to the outline now, look under the next section called "Curriculum Theories" and look for the first topic in black lettering called "Overview." Click on "Overview."

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