By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. It was about fifteen years ago that I embarked on a journey to research, write and defend a doctoral dissertation on emergent curriculum. I wanted to write about a topic that reflected my practice as an early childhood educator and focused on an unresolved problem. I graduated with an early childhood education diploma in the 1980s without a clear pedagogical orientation. In fact I had never heard of the word pedagogy. While I was eager to expose children to the wonder of new experiences and discoveries, I looked for recipes and plans without critically examining teaching practice in relation to theory. I accepted a theme approach to curriculum development. Today, I have gone back to my dissertation: Reaching the Top of the Mountain: The Impact of Emergent Curriculum on the Practice and Self-Image of Early Childhood Educators to once again reflect on themes and pose the question, when will they ever end? All these years later, I still hear about their use and wonder why, they have endured when there is now so much written and available on an approach to curriculum that emerges.
A theme is usually a broad concept or topic like seasons or animals and is often based on holidays. In theme work, children are rarely involved in posing questions to be answered or taking initiative for investigation. Themes are teacher-directed and teacher-owned. I chose what would be the content of the learning for the children that I worked with from a book, which told me what to do every day of each week. It was easy way to plan. At first, I was excited to see how the children would respond to the “reproducibles” and cut outs that represented the theme. However, the excitement of using a curriculum based on themes quickly evaporated. I became bored with the approach of planning curriculum based on overriding week-long themes. I knew that there was something more to teaching and learning. At the time, I was experiencing cognitive dissonance and have written about this in past posts including one on facing the resistance to change. I recall back then, I was increasingly uncomfortable with what I had once believed to be an acceptable approach when children displayed disinterest in a particular theme. It was not during the theme activities that I could see learning taking place. It was during play, when the children themselves were faced with cognitive dissonance, realizing that in order to build a bridge from blocks, a foundational structure was needed.
The overuse of themes suggests a process that is mimetic with the children repeating or miming newly presented information. It is an artificial imposition on children. Themes can end up merely as external decoration superimposed on children and the environment. The length of the theme is preset by the calendar or the teacher. It implies a planned or crafted progression, as in the notion of developing a theme. It suggests an overarching, general concept that connects several ideas. It is based on the assumption that all children will benefit and be interested. It does not acknowledge each child’s uniqueness and does not empower children to be part of the process. The common issues and concerns about teaching children using themes involve planning themes in advance and choosing themes with questionable meaningfulness. Often teachers use seasons and holidays as the guide to curriculum planning with themes. Holiday themes run the risk of being little more than a convenient backdrop for classroom decorations and craft displays. Early childhood education curriculum should be about meaning making. A meaningful curriculum is relevant to children. Recently, I had the privilege to visit Blueberry Creek Forest School and Nature Centre and spent time with a child who was given time and space to create her own representations of her own learning. This is how learning should happen!
When themes are chosen without consideration of children’s interests and development, they run the risk of being meaningless. Children need to be involved in the process and there should be consideration of how children learn. Since themes are often short lived (one week in duration), there is also potential for a lack of depth. The message being communicated through the use of themes is that there is a great deal of information to be consumed by children through a transmission model of learning. Themes related to the alphabet, numbers and geometric shapes are accepted as important concepts for children. The difference between a theme method and a curriculum with an emerging focus is that that what children actually know about the subject or topic is as relevant as their interest in that content. The image of the child embedded is that of a consumer of information who needs to be entertained, rather than a child who is curious and capable of creating and contributing to the culture within the environment.
Why are themes still used? I would love to read your perspectives about the endurance of this curriculum approach. My theory is that it connects to the need to fill in boxes on a planning form. The theme approach has very specific features revealed in linear, segmented ways as activities written into a matrix posted outside the classroom. This is the early childhood educator’s curriculum plan. Ever since I was a practising early childhood educator, I was constantly searching for the ultimate format that could represent a more authentic view of what was happening in the classroom. I am still searching. I was excited to find a discussion thread in an early childhood education Facebook group about planning formats and hoped to see something innovative shared. I was saddened by what was shared. Even though there were not overarching themes, the boxes were filled with discrete and questionable experiences. Do you have a format that works for you? Does it offer something meaningful? In retrospect, when I recall the matrix of activities that represented the curriculum I presented to children, it was irrelevant, meaningless, and incongruent. The main challenge was to fill in the boxes so that each represented the overarching theme, paying little consequence to what or how children were learning. My blind adherence to themes brings to mind the words of Malaguzzi as eloquently expressed in the “100 Languages” poem:
The child has a hundred languages (and a hundred, hundred, hundred more). But they steal ninety-nine; the school and the culture separate the head from the body. They tell the child to think without hands, to do without head, to listen and not speak, to understand without joy, to love and marvel only at Easter and Christmas.
In my own experience with themes, no concerted effort was made to include the children’s wishes and interests. Some teachers may be able to use themes flexibly and allow for transgressions from the dominant theme, but I found it necessary to “stay on theme.” I made an assumption, every week and every day, about what the children needed to know. I acted as the transmitter of this knowledge. I was not open to hearing the voice of the children, the voice of the families, nor even my own inner voice. The primary way I covered the theme was through the use of adult-created, precut shapes that represented common symbols. Often, I would also include worksheets, which satisfied a need to have an academic focus within my classroom. That was then, it shouldn’t be now. Why have themes endured?