Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Thematic Approach: Theory and Practice at the Aleknagik School

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Thematic Approach: Theory and Practice at the Aleknagik School

Article excerpt

All classes at the K-8 Aleknagik School in southwest Alaska revolve around a theme that has a science or a social studies emphasis and the outcomes, according to three teachers involved with the program, have been heartening.

Three hundred miles from Anchorage and the continuous road system, in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska, lies the Yupik Eskimo village of Aleknagik. This village, which at first appears to be on the edge of the world, stands at the forefront of innovative educational philosophy and practice. For the past five years, the Aleknagik School has implemented a thematic approach toward education.

All classes at the K-8 Aleknagik School revolve around a theme that has a science or a social studies emphasis. Past themes have included world governments, geology, Native American civilizations, astronomy, ecology, Alaskan history, 20th-century American history, physics, human anatomy, a trip around the world, plants, great inventions, aquatic biology, and classical art. Each of these themes was studied for eight to 10 weeks and was supplemented by shorter weeklong units such as the travels of Marco Polo, slavery and the cotton gin, and the three branches of the American government.

This thematic approach differs in many ways from the traditional approach that is found at most schools. The traditional approach treats each class as an isolated unit with little or, in many cases, no integration between classes. Often, teachers seem to wear blinders, remaining unaware of what is happening beyond their own classrooms, and the students learn to view each class as an unrelated, separate entity. If any connections are found between subjects, they are most likely considered irrelevant. The result is that students often miss the meaning of information and lack the ability to apply what they do learn.

The thematic approach, on the other hand, encourages holistic study of a subject. With the school immersed in a theme, the connections between classes are recognized and cultivated. The students learn the basic subjects through activities that are based on the theme. By actually applying the skills that they learn in these subjects, they come to see how and why the skills are meaningful. Not many adults sit down and do math for 60 minutes and then spend an hour focusing on grammar. Real events require people to integrate different areas of knowledge.

A thematic approach also reflects the most recent research on how the brain comes to know. There are two ways that we remember new information. The traditional classroom emphasizes one method, which is the memorization of isolated facts and concepts. Aleknagik uses this approach but also uses a second method that educators and researchers have recently recognized. This approach is based on the theory that our minds organize pieces of related information into complex webs, called schemata. New information becomes meaningful when it is integrated into our existing schemata. In this way, knowledge builds on itself, and the schemata grow exponentially. A thematic approach takes advantage of this process by having all the subjects revolve around a central theme, thus enabling students to develop complex webs of interconnected information.(1)

The Aleknagik School

The Aleknagik School is unusual not only in its teaching strategies but also in its size and location. Currently, only 40 students are enrolled in the school, which spans kindergarten through eighth grade, and the teaching staff consists of three full-time teachers and a principal/teacher. The small size of the staff facilitates cooperation among teachers, and the small enrollment encourages cross-grade-level groupings of students.

These factors help in the implementation of a thematic approach; however, we believe that our strategies could be adapted by educators in all types and sizes of schools. For example, larger schools could be broken down into smaller units or "schools-within-schools," and teachers could be grouped into teams so that they could more readily cooperate and integrate the curriculum around a theme. …

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