What lessons can we learn from the primary approach?


Introducing a themed approach to learning in the middle years is challenging but could better support students through transition. Isabel du Toit offers some advice.

Mention the word “thematic” to secondary teachers and you can be sure that most will switch off. I know I did when I was teaching. 

Because of our preconceived ideas of what thematic learning is, or negative experiences of trying to make it work, we tend to disregard it within the secondary environment. For all sorts of reasons, the primary way of thematic learning just doesn’t work in secondary school. But that doesn’t mean to say that thematic learning itself should be discounted.

We probably all agree that some new solutions need to be found for the middle years stage. School leaders and teachers alike recognise the gaping divergence between primary and secondary and the many challenges it creates for students trying to navigate the transition successfully. We have all seen motivated 11-year-olds who move from primary and very quickly begin to disengage.

We can no longer protest our innocence and blame the ever-present “hormone changes” for the failings we see in previously very successful students who are battling to negotiate this transition.

It’s a brain change

Over the past 10 years, scientific research has reinforced what every parent of a teenager has always suspected – something seriously challenging is going on here. One minute they are an eager, active youngster, the next a brooding, opinionated, argumentative youth! We now know that during adolescence the brain is undergoing massive development; specialising and fine-tuning, pruning all unnecessary connections and preparing for adulthood.

Researchers tell us that these brain developments mean that young teenagers consequently experience an increased need to make sense of their world, to understand who they are, and where and how they fit in to their community and into society. 

They also have an increased need to connect with their peers, rather than with family and adults, in their move towards independence. They have an innate desire to take risks, to find personal relevance in everything they do and learn, and to be actively involved in all decision-making that affects them.

However, this development doesn’t happen all at the same time. One part of the brain, we are told, takes longer to mature – the area associated with, among other things, organisation. So, although in many ways, our middle years students are well on the way to adulthood, in some aspects they still have a long way to go. Providing a learning environment that meets these needs of the maturing brain – but still supports those parts yet to develop – is crucially important for learning during this period of school.

Most students require more support with the challenges that the developing brain creates for their learning than we offer with the “traditional” secondary model – a model where the safe, supportive, engaging and creative learning approach of primary is replaced overnight with multiple teachers, disparate classrooms, complex timetables and disconnected subjects.

A thematic model that works

A thematic approach could be the answer. But not the simple cross-curricular model of primary – and this is where many attempts at secondary thematic models have come unstuck. Any learning model for middle years teaching and learning needs to ensure proper focus on vastly expanded subject content, rigorous and extensive learning outcomes, and to take into consideration delivery by multiple teachers. 

Linking subject learning outcomes to conceptual themes, and through these conceptual themes to other subject learning outcomes (rather than to superficial themes) could be the solution.

Such an approach requires the planning of subject learning outcomes around a series of abstract ideas – the conceptual themes. Each idea would need to be relevant for all subjects and would act as a common link that students could identify with and make connections to – much like the hub and spokes of a bicycle wheel. 

An example of such a conceptual idea is: “Things are more stable when different elements are in the correct or best possible proportions.” Think about the connections – obvious or subtle – that could be made to this idea in mathematics, English, science, history, geography, PE, music, art and so on. Having a conceptual theme makes all the difference, because it helps teachers to respond to the changing needs of the adolescent brain without risking diffusing the subject learning. 

The theme creates a platform for students to identify connections; between their subjects, between their different learning experiences and with real-life. It helps them to make meaning of what they are learning. It provides a context for creating engaging, challenging, relevant learning and debate. It can be the “glue” that bonds everything that a student experiences in school; allowing possibilities that siloed subject lessons never could. It also gives teachers a reason to communicate and to share a common focus.

Why all the fuss about making connections? Research has been telling us for several years now that the brain organises itself in an associative way; linking all new learning to previous learning, finding links with all new experiences, adapting perspectives continuously. So the more connections that students can make in their learning and to their own personal experiences, the better. 

For the increasingly independent adolescent brain, it is also essential to find the connections in their learning to the world they are beginning to make sense of.

And why all the fuss about engagement? Engagement is everything – a disengaged student learns very little. Middle years students who are engaged in their learning become inspired, confident, independent learners; a crucial step towards the preparation for their next stage of education. Providing a learning approach that supports and makes sense to their maturing adolescent brain is the answer to engaging middle school students. 

Carefully selected and meaningful conceptual themes can respond to both of these needs, helping to engage students in a deliberate, purposeful, and learning-focused way.

Is it practical?

So can it work? And is it sustainable? Well, if you’ve tried planning a “thematic week”, as many schools have done, you will know it’s hard, time-consuming and challenging to find themes that are relevant for all subjects without sacrificing some of the subject rigour necessary in the more formal, high-stake learning environment of the secondary school. But it can work. 

Here are some suggestions, based on feedback from schools that I have recently been working with, to help in your planning of a successful thematic approach for middle years: 

  • Assign a team of subject co-ordinators to work together on the development, and allocate them plenty of development time.

  • Identify a few conceptual ideas that could provide unforced links to all or most subjects. This can be the biggest challenge. The ideas need to be broad enough to be relevant to the learning of all subject knowledge, skills and understanding, but clear and concise enough to avoid ambiguity by everyone involved – both teachers and students.

  • Establish a time plan so that all departments are working on the same theme at the same time, facilitating link-making between all subjects.

  • Make time for teacher collaboration during the planning stage (within subjects and across the year group).

  • Start with a few subjects, for example humanities and English, for year one and then draw in other subjects over time.

  • Isabel du Toit is the head of the International Middle Years Curriculum.


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