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Thematic Learning


Thematic learning is a pedagogical model based on the selection of a theme or topic of study. I must begin this description with a confession or declaration. My understanding of thematic learning is based on my own experiences in the classroom. My ideas are ones that over time have worked for me and for my students. My teaching model has evolved and changed over time. This model also incorporates several other Pedagogical Methods such as "Outside of Classroom" learning, "Team Teaching" and "Learning Communities."

In the model, "the theme" becomes the critical thinking binder that helps bring different and seemingly unrelated information together into a unified whole. In fact I would characterize this as a holistic method. The model encourages a student to think around a subject. The model is inclusive and encourages the student to see and seek relationships between information and facts from various sources inside, and outside of, the classroom. It is also a scalar form of learning as it encourages students to look for thematic relationships between finite, or specific information, and larger even global thinking.

Basic components of the method:

1. Choose a theme. The theme needs to be one that can be understood through the individual experience, but, it must also be capable of extending beyond the individual person to have meaningful connections in the larger framework of human experience – family, school, community, ecological systems. The choice of theme is central to the ultimate success of the project. I am always looking and thinking about issues in our community life that can have an impact on the individual. It is essential that the project seems relevant and real to students. The importance of this relevancy cannot be stressed enough. You cannot expect a student to become deeply committed to a process of thought and action if the instructor has not found a compelling issue that can be read thoroughly and rigorously on multiple levels. The multiple readings are crucial for the life of the project.

2. Establish a time frame for the project, carefully working out how long to be spent on each part of the process. There will be two timeframes – one for the instructor’s preparations and one for student work. For the instructor the time frame starts far in advance of the students. Choosing a theme and gathering resources is a long and complex process that must be planned well in advance. For the students the instructor should let the timing of the procedure be a strict guide for the student to encourage serious attention in order to develop time management skills.
3. Having established the theme and time frame, now the instructor must do their extensive research. It is the role of the instructor to identify and assemble a "resource team" to provide the content for the students. Here again, the resource team must reflect the intention of the project to move beyond individual experience and examine as broad a range of potential related issues as possible. The resource team is the content specialists. In my classroom it is not unusual to find biologists, geologists, poets, sociologists, historians, anthropologists, urban researchers, politicians and members of the community as part of my content or learning community team.

4. The field trip is the grand finale to the instructor-driven part of this process. The instructor has set the stage for the student’s action. Now the instructor’s role in the process moves into the background. The field trip is when the student’s intense period of discovery and analysis begins. The field trip is the event from which the student’s ideas are generated. It is also vital to the life of the classroom because it is often through this shared experience that a real sense of community spirit and collaboration amongst the students develops.
5. Now the students begin to take over center stage. Up until now it has been a process driven primarily by the instructor's skill at organization and guidance. The instructor must step back, constantly act as guide and facilitator, but let the students drive the process forward. At this stage the students will begin to process the information. One good way to digest a huge amount of information is to divide the students into groups to focus on a particular aspect of the materials and then to be ready to share through presentations in the classroom. This stage of student learning is focused on research and analysis of the project issues and theme.

6. In the second of the student-driven steps, after everyone has had a chance to absorb the new information, the student must break from the group and begin to function independently. In this stage, the students are transforming the research data into their own concept, what we call a "big idea." Once a "big idea" is formed, the student uses this idea as the basis from which to reason and structure their decisions as they develop an experiential order for a building that they design.

Best Practice:  How the method worked for the "Borders" project at Pasadena City College:

Last year I selected "Borders" as a theme for my architectural design classes. I have established a time frame based on my experience working with this method. I have discovered that a period of ten weeks is required to complete the student-driven process. This period of time is necessary as the architectural design process has many specific parts that must be addressed in a systematic way. The first part of the process, the student research and analysis, takes about two weeks of that time. The remaining eight weeks is the work on concept development, the "big idea," and designing of the specific solution.

I assembled the necessary resources several weeks in advance of the students introduction to the project. In the Borders case, the resources were as follows:

  • a field trip to the physical borderland between Mexico and America
  • speakers who opperated as collaborators on the project
  • carefully selected reading materials.

I selected three team members beside myself: Rosa Garza Moreno, an Urban Researcher from Mexico City currently working in Los Angeles; Brock Klein, an ESL Instructor from Pasadena City College; and Teddy Cruz, born in Guatemala who practices and teaches architecture in the San Diego/Tijuana area. Teddy specializes in architectural space along the border and is internationally recognized through his writings on the subject.

The next step was my own research and orientation into the project. This began predictably with the idea of the border as a linear boundary or line between two countries, states or communities. As I continued my research, the border concept developed much further from this point and I began to see the idea of borders in a much broader way, to include issues of individual identity, immigrant identity and, finally, the notion of space within a border. I discussed these ideas with my content team over breakfast one morning. We decided to introduce the semester project with a discussion between Rosa, Brock, the Architecture 20A+B students and myself on the topic of Borders. I began with a simple definition of a border as a boundary between two or more identities. Also, I introduced the idea of a border as being a space of transition between two identities. Rosa continued this idea by stating that the first border that we encounter is at birth with we are separated from our mother's identity and begin living outside of our mother's wombs. The students were very excited and began speaking from their own experiences as immigrants, travelers and observers of the world around them. With this first meeting, I established our conceptual grounding for the project.

The next step of the process was the field trip. It was an important component of the process. The field trip became a very visceral experience, which opened the theme both to my students and me. For the borders project I selected two sites, one for each of my second year architectural design studios. The first site, on the border between the United States and Mexico, was where the Tijuana River crosses the border, a place having all of the emotion and tension of ‘Check Point Charlie’ along the Berlin Wall. This site was literally and figuratively the border.

The second site was removed from the actual border and was located in a residential site in San Diego. The students were given a selection of pedestrian bridges at various sites. The bridges connect the various local residential communities that are separated by the vast canyons. At this site the theme borders is seen as two identities being linked by a bridge. The canyon represents the space within a border, a space composed of two identities simultaneously.


While at the sites, other information was woven into this learning experience. For example, Brock Klein assigned a project in which the architecture students were to draw pictures using words of what they imagined was on the other side of the wall at the border or what they thought was on the other side of the bridge. Students begin thinking of text both in terms of a written, as well as visual language. They were given a total of four poetry exercises at the site. In addition to the poetry exercises, the students were given very specific information about the border from Teddy Cruz. He told them facts, including its length, height and origin. They learned that the wall was composed of steel panels that were designed as airport landing strip for the desert in the Gulf War. They learned to identify the two sides of the border urbanistically. In other words, they learned how to identify and distinguish between the urban grid of Tijuana and the open and withdrawn American side of the border. The students processed this information as they explored the site themselves through artifacts that they collected on their trip along the wall from the border crossing at San Yisidro to the Ocean -- where the wall hits the sea. They felt the ironies of the border as they attempted to visit Friendship Park, closed to visitors by the United States Border Patrol. After a day that began way too early, the students and staff loaded up the vans and headed back to Pasadena.

Once back at school, the students began to process the information that they had collected. To begin the creative process, I asked each student to make a collage using the poetry exercise documentation from the field trip. The subject for this collage was an imaginary site at the border. The image to the left is an imaginary site created by Mariangela Murgula from Architecture 20B.

Next, I asked them to analyze this research through the artifacts they selected at the site during our field trip. This phase is called the object transformation. Students research the scientific aspects of their subjects as well as their emotional responses to them. They re-characterize them through the theme "Borders." For example, a student found a bottle cap. He analyzed it carefully, and after researching it in the Oxford dictionary, he found several definitions for "cap." One of them appealed to him and seemed to be suitable for his project. The definition read thus: "A team captain." The bottle cap now could be understood as identity. The students do this with nine different subjects. At the conclusion of this stage, the students make a construction to house their subjects. "The Container Project" is the final conceptual phase. It explores the relationships between its contents or ideas through the actions of opening and revealing each compartmentalized subject. The project becomes a metaphor of a building with functions, (i.e. the subjects); a sequence of experience, (i.e. the order and manner in which the container is opened); and most importantly an idea which is rooted in its site or context.

The students completed their semester work by designing a building for the site. The building function relates to the theme as well. The students working on the US Mexican Border site designed an educational building that spanned the border. Their project description was:

Design research station for the study of the critical relationship between the United States and Mexico focusing on the theme: "The changing relationship between the two countries."

The Colegio De La Frontera Norte is a government supported think tank and graduate school currently located on the outskirts west of Tijuana. Their US counterpart, San Diego Dialogue, is a part of the University of California, San Diego. Both entities are involved in studies that deal with economic development, immigration and urban growth as it occurs along the border. Your design proposal will house the research, public information and administrative areas of both COLDEF and SDD, while not replacing the existing teaching and outreach facilities that each organization currently operates. Both organizations deal with similar issues from different points of appreciation, one being in The North and one being in The South.

The intent of this project you are undertaking is to offer a common site where a third kind of geopolitical field emerges; one where the borderless space of interaction, dialogue and knowledge occupy the usable air-rights over the Tijuana river-border, and where the Berlin Wall of North America is bridged through an architectural intervention. While symbolic and loaded with all kinds of metaphorical possibilities, the project should also deal with technology and program, climate and trans border access as key issues. You’re building concept and development is to be based upon your transformation of your container of subjects. You’re building concept and development is to be based upon your transformation of your container of subjects.


As one can see from the project description, the building function carries the theme. It connects and continues the design process from the conceptual phase of "the container" to the building phase.

The image below is a collage that I made to illustrate the process followed in the field trip and post field trip in the classroom. The drawings, imaginary site, and artifacts illustrate the process followed in the Borders project.

The Diagram of the Method:

  1. Establish the scope of project. This depends on the type of work performed in your discipline.
  2. Choose a theme, one that bridges the individual to the community.
  3. Assemble a resource team to provide the ‘web’ of content for the project.
  4. Plan the field trip.
  5. The students process the information through group analysis projects and individual analysis projects. Group work allows the students to form a community that can evaluate the information for the whole class. The individual analysis results in individual student ‘big ideas’ centered on the ‘theme’ for the project as outlined by the instructor.
  6. Individual student designs begin.

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