Designing the Thematic Curriculum: An All Aspects Approach

Publication November 1997

This guide evolved from both a need and an opportunity. The need relates directly to schools and schooling. For some time, student involvement in broadly framed, contextualized life and living experiences has been recognized as being beneficial. Students can benefit from this involvement in several ways; most important, they can become more engaged as learners, better prepared for further studies, and better equipped to enter the work world. Unfortunately, many school curricula have been modeled after the traditional factory assembly lines that were first established in the early part of this century. Just as an automobile travels down a predetermined path with workers adding part after part to its frame, students in traditional educational settings move from course to course and end up some time later gathering all the required “parts” to qualify for graduation. As automobiles reach the end of the traditional assembly line, they are supposed to be driven away. An embarrassingly large number of our students are not properly prepared and need to undergo remedial work in an effort to rectify the education process. Some of the students are helped, but others are not. Many of these underprepared students never achieve their personal or work potential.

Beginning in the 1970s, some U.S. automobile manufacturers began to recognize their inability to compete with foreign automobile manufacturers. They rapidly discovered that their traditional production lines were inefficient and outdated. Dramatic changes in automobile production were made and new production approaches such as total quality management, self-directed work teams, and just-in-time parts delivery eventually had a major positive impact. Automobile production and resultant product quality greatly improved and U.S. automobile manufacturers have since gained back some of their lost market share.

Can the same be said about schools and schooling? Is a traditional “assembly line” schooling model the best way to go? And even more important, are graduates prepared for life and living? Are they able to compete in the world class workplace? According to the Goals 2000 initiative, our Nation’s schools must maintain a very busy schedule if educators ever hope to prepare graduates who can compete head-to-head with graduates living in other industrialized nations. Herein lies the need for this guide, which has as its purpose effecting meaningful curriculum change that assists students in gaining a competitive edge, both in life and living.

The opportunity to prepare this guide came through support provided by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE), which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Our NCRVE project examined how “all aspects of the industry,” a concept described in recent federal legislation, might be incorporated into school curricula. Building on an “all aspects” project funded by the Joyce Foundation, our effort focused on three areas: (1) identifying curriculum practices and processes that emphasize the long term; (2) preparing a guide that describes these long-term curriculum practices and processes and the ways they may be designed; and (3) assisting educators at selected school sites with their curriculum implementation. Information about curricula was gathered through interviews with educators at selected schools around the United States where long-term curricula are operational.

Our examination of the ways “all aspects” was being used in the schools and discussions with educators led us to several conclusions. First, many people do not understand what “all aspects” is. This lack of understanding causes people to view “all aspects” as anything from training for industry to industry-based education and education in industry. In particular, the term “industry” tends to confuse and mislead many people. Our second conclusion was that “all aspects” is most beneficial as a process rather than an outcome. Conceptually, we have come to view “all aspects” as a very important contributor to thematic curriculum development. From a more applied vantage point, we see “all aspects” as serving a useful function in creating curricula that are based on encompassing and powerful themes.

We have thus prepared a guide that focuses on two interrelated areas: (1) designing the thematic curriculum and (2) utilizing “all aspects” in the creation of this curriculum. The guide is organized into eight sections that parallel stages in the curriculum design process. In Section 1, the thematic curriculum and “all aspects” are introduced and described. Details about the value of thematic curriculum design are also presented. Section 2, which includes an overview of the design process, begins with a description of why it is important to view change as a process that can have positive impact on curriculum design. Next, the various options available to curriculum designers are introduced. In Sections 3, 4, and 5, the curriculum options are described in more detail. Contextual, organizational, and delivery options that may be imbedded in or linked directly with the thematic curriculum are detailed. Persons who are familiar with these options may want to skip directly to Section 6 where the process of identifying, selecting, organizing, and integrating content is explained. Section 7 focuses on linking curriculum and instruction. Since this area is often neglected during the curriculum design process, we chose to describe various teaching/learning strategies that can be used to improve instruction in school-based and work-based settings as well as settings in which the school and the workplace are connected. In Section 8, a description of curriculum assessment and refinement is provided. The need to maintain and improve curriculum quality demands that periodic assessment be conducted and that refinement based on assessment results be completed. Using “all aspects” in the design process helps ensure that curriculum themes are broad and inclusive rather that narrow and exclusive. Rounding out the guide are five appendices that include a wide range of examples and suggestions to assist in the creation of quality thematic curricula.

The preparation of this guide has been a curriculum building process that we have thoroughly enjoyed. We are confident this resource will provide others with an equally pleasant journey as they seek to create their own thematic curricula.

Finch, C. R., Frantz, N. R., Mooney, M., & Aneke, N. O. (1997, November). Designing the thematic curriculum: An all aspects approach. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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