Shining a Light on Universal Themes

My dad had a wonderful way of explaining things. Because he was a doctor, he often needed to describe how the parts of the body worked and what happened when those parts did not work properly. Frequently he compared the functions of the body to common machinery or household systems. He helped his patients understand their illnesses by making connections to objects and experiences that were already familiar to them.

Our children and students also learn best when they relate new information to things and ideas that are familiar. We can help them with this by teaching universal themes/concepts. By using this technique, we also help students to form “big ideas” that are transferred to future experiences. Gifted students are capable of taking these big ideas in-depth and exploring them in great detail. This can actually be used as a differentiation tool. 
  1. Rather than have kids just memorize math facts, show them the patterns of numbers. This will make the memorization much easier.
  2. Rather than learn a lot of historical facts—dates, names, battles—teach the concept of cause and effect. Then the dates, names, and battles will fall into place.
  3. When studying literature, instead of checking only for comprehension, discuss the theme of the book in relation to responsibility, or conflict, or survival.
Universal themes can make the difference between knowledge and understanding—learning many facts vs. being able to apply those facts to something meaningful.

It is especially helpful if a theme is carried across all academic disciplines for months or even an entire year. Some schools have all classes concentrate on a different universal theme each year. Possible themes include
  • Systems
  • Change
  • Power
  • Adversity
  • Point of view
  • Human rights
  • Family
  • Culture
  • Persuasion
  • Revolution
  • Communication
  • Cycles
  • Symmetry
The International Baccalaureate Organization uses universal themes in its Primary Years Programme. The program uses six transdisciplinary themes as umbrella concepts for all subjects. The themes are
  • Who we are
  • Where we are in place and time
  • How we express ourselves
  • How the world works
  • How we organize ourselves
  • Sharing the planet
Many institutions use The Five Themes of Geography to teach about our world. The themes are
  1. Location
  2. Place
  3. Human/environment interaction
  4. Movement
  5. Regions
By studying geography using these themes, students learn not only place names, but they learn about communication, transportation, trade, languages, the cultures of the world, why people settle in certain areas, and how landscape and weather influence areas. Studying geography using themes provides a better understanding of history, interactions between countries and cultures, and a better understanding of current events.

Universal themes can also be implemented at home. Having a common vocabulary and relating many experiences to the same theme will help young people learn in all aspects of their lives. For instance, if the theme were “systems,” your family could discuss the characteristics of a system and then see how different systems meet those characteristics. Some systems that you might find around home are
  • bicycle
  • aquarium
  • plumbing
  • electrical
  • structure of living quarters (rooms for different purposes)
  • systems for accomplishing work around the house
  • systems for doing homework
Once children have an idea about systems in general, they will be more ready to learn about other systems, such as
  • Circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems
  • government
  • school structure
  • community
  • social insects

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