In an earlier post I outlined one of the core concepts of the themantic model of curriculum design: the building block. If a building  block is an individual unit of information, a relationship chain is what is created when it’s significantly connected to another building block.

Psychology is the study of relationships. Primarily, it’s the study of relationships between variables and behaviour. So students need to know the variables and behaviours, but just as importantly they need to understand how they’re related. Moreover, they need to be able to explain their relationship in response to a question or problem.

Describing and knowing is the first level of thinking in the themantic approach: this constitutes the ground work for deeper understanding. Explaining and understanding is what deeper understanding looks like.

I’ll give you a good example from IB Psychology: A Student’s Guide. Students need to be able to explain how hormones affect a behaviour. So they need to know the hormones, the behaviour and the research demonstrating how one affects the other. But they also need to understand how the hormone affects behaviour. This can be quite complex. Many students describe studies that show changes in hormone levels affect behaviour, e.g. castration studies when looking at testosterone and aggression. But this doesn’t show how the testosterone affected behaviour. There are considerable links missing in this chain of explanation.

One possible explanation I offer in the text is that: increased testosterone increases the activation of the amygdala upon perception of a social threat and when the person is motivated to deal with that threat; this activation of the amygdala activates the stress response and will increase emotional and physiological arousal. When someone is motivated to deal with a threat and has increased emotional and physiological arousal, there could be a higher chance for them to display aggression because to be aggression one typically requires being angry (emotion) and the display of aggression would defeat the social threat and maintain their social standing. 

This is a thorough explanation of how increased testosterone might affect aggression. But as you can see, it’s constructed with multiple  different ideas, such as:

  • perception of social threat
  • activation of the amygala and its role in the stress response
  • emotional arousal
  • physiological arousal
  • aggression and its role in defending social standing

In order to offer the above explanation, students need to understand how these concepts (building blocks) are significantly related in response to the question regarding how testosterone affects behaviour.

In an ordinary course structure, I might get about four hours to teach this topic. It would be very difficult for students to acquire all these news ideas and use them to construct a significant relationship chain in that time. But what the themantic model of curriculum design does is introduces these concepts gradually throughout the unit. Testosterone and behaviour is topic 2.4 in the Criminology unit. In the previous three topics students were introduced to aggression, the perception of social threat, activation of the amygdala, perception, emotional arousal, etc. This new topic only requires the introduction of the evolutionary role of aggression in maintaining social standing and how testosterone affects the amygdala when we’re motivated to deal with social threat. (Plus Goetz et al and Radke et al; the two studies that demonstrate this concept).

This is the themantic approach: the carefully planned gradual introduction of new learning so that deep understanding of complex relationships can compound over time.

And this is what we need to be teaching, right? How variables, behaviours, research methods and ethics are all interrelated. By timing the introduction of new material, we can increase the chances that students can acquire deep understanding.

The themantic model, including building blocks and relationship chains works at a micro and a macro level. At a micro level in psych for instance, students need to understand how increased emotional arousal might lead to aggression. But this is micro: it’s part of a bigger relationship chain. The macro relationship is: hormones affect behaviour.

I’ll just take a moment to point out that the terms building blocks and relationships chains aren’t used in every lesson of mine. It would get tedious and might lead students to just try to jump through the hoops I throw at them: when it does become useful is in giving feedback. This is where the power of being able to use these metaphors will enable students to reflect on the clarity of their own explanations. I can now say to students who give me half-constructed explanations something like, “I followed you up until you go to the emotional arousal, and then I didn’t see how that lead to aggression. You’ve got a couple of links in your explanation that need connecting at that part.”

Assessing at level one, knowing/describing/building blocks is generally pretty quantitative. It’s rather straightforward to say this is accurate and relevant, or this is inaccurate/irrelevant. When we get to explanations of significant relationships it’s a little more qualitative.

A lot of students are too descriptive in their answers and their explanations are far too brief, often only a one sentence statement of a conclusion. They sell themselves short when they do this. But there are two reasons why explanations are too brief in student answers:

  1. They don’t understand how things are related
  2. They don’t feel it’s necessary to state the obvious

I’ve had to convince a few very able students why it is essential to “state the obvious.” They have to bear in mind the purpose and audience of an exam: the purpose of an exam answer is to demonstrate your understanding of significant relationships to an examiner: they want to see your thinking. I now use this terminology in class: “Show me your thinking here; I can’t see how you’re connected these ideas. You’ve told me that they are related, but you need to go further and make it clear how you think they’re related.” I love now being able to see kids’ thinking in their answers and to be able to give them better feedback on the clarity of their communication of their thinking.

Our model offers an alternative definition of description to the one the IB provides and we also offer an alternative definition of explanation. The IB defines explain as “to give a detailed account or summary with reasons or causes.” If that makes sense to you, great.

But our definition of explain is to “communicate understanding of significant relationships in response to a question or problem.” 

To us, this just becomes a little more useful in practice. An explanation must include description to provide context, but goes further to ensure that students are communicating their understanding of how things are related. If they can do this they will have an in-depth understanding of the subject you are teaching (oh, and they’ll do well on exams, too).

If you look at the new guide for IB Psych’, you can see that students need to understand relationships: how hormones affect behaviour, how schema affects memory, how the group affects the individual, how social influences affect stereotypes; how memory processes affect stereotypes; how variables can cause conflict; how variables can reduce conflict; how variables affect disorders, etc. etc.

We need to teach for understanding, but understanding will be increased if we can carefully plan our lessons, topics and units.

Our model works at the micro level in lesson planning: in each themantic lesson there is an introduction of new material (building blocks) and there’s always a guiding question. The guiding question simply provides the stimulus for students to process their learning and to make significant relationships: it guides them in connecting the new building blocks. Once again, this is just basic, common sense teaching practice. We all do this instinctively anyway, but we’ve simply given it a clear rationale and some handy visuals and terms upon which to frame this lesson planning.

But why we offer whole units and teaching resources is that we’re aware busy teachers don’t have the time to align whole units. Lesson by lesson planning in this way can be done, but to ensure that 30 lessons in a unit are all carefully aligned and  build upon one another takes hours and hours (trust me, I know; Criminology took two months of 4am starts). We want to provide the aligned curricula for teachers, and leave you to do the fun stuff like planning engaging lessons and activities that will get students making the connections in interesting ways.

Just quickly, one other practical application of the relationship is in the exam situation: students can now analyse the demands of the question by identifying the relationship chain that they need to address. Moreover, they can carefully plan their answer by laying out the steps in their relationship chain that they’re going to explain. This stage will stop students from applying the wrong relationships and wrong studies to the exam question.

As I started thinking along these lines, I began to realize how much I was underestimating the level of thinking and processing that I have been demanding of my students for the past ten years.

By having students be able to offer well-developed explanations also cuts down on content. In an essay, the above example about hormones would take about 400 words to explain. They could connect this to violent crime and so with an intro of a bout 100 words, that’s about 500 words, plus a brief outline of research that shows testosterone and violent crime are correlated, and then they could offer a counter point that shows aggression and violence might be affected by social factors: insert social cognitive theory or culture of honour and a conclusion and you’ve got a top-level essay.

Students need to take the time to explain how things are related in their answers; this will demonstrate their understanding, increase their marks and reduce their desire to regurgitate heaps of studies to fill in the empty spaces in their answers.

I hope the concept of relationship chains makes sense. The best way to toy with the themantic ideas is to apply them to your own teaching. Before you teach your next lesson, reflect on your intended outcomes and see if our concepts make sense: do you have individual units of information you need kids to know and are you asking them to make significant connections between this information?

I’ll keep posting more examples of what this all looks like in students’ work so you can see the full extent of the practical applications of the themantic approach.

Again, our goal is to make the classroom experience richer by offering practically applicable ideas, as well as freeing up teacher time to focus on the fun parts of teaching: interacting with students and planning engaging activities.