Thematic Learning: What is it all about?

Have you ever wondered why you learned what you did in any class you have ever taken?

Why did you learn that piece of material in that class in that way?

Ridgefield Academy’s curriculum combines traditional subjects (English, history, math, science, a world language), the arts (studio art, band, chorus), technology, and athletics. It is designed to build skills in several areas, help students know themselves as learners, and develop a love of learning that will last well after their time in schools – as well as teach the foundations of education: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Even after Middle and Upper School teachers took the wraps off a curriculum redesign two years in the making, it still does all of those things.

This year, a bulletin board hangs outside of Head of Upper School Mr. Howarth's office with some pretty big questions. Some of my favorites are:
  • Who goes to explore and why?
  • Can I appreciate something without liking it?
  • What do we mean by equality?
  • What is our role in creating positive change?
  • What is the relationship between exploration and exploitation?
  • How can we act on the needs of others?

These questions and others like them are the underpinnings of the new Middle and Upper school curriculum. Students work to answer the questions while studying The Outsiders, graphing linear equations, plate tectonics, American imperialism, and more. Conversely, a student might generate those same questions as they examine one of those topics; the questions are multidirectional, both providing guidance to explore and sparking curiosity because of exploration.

Each big question is relevant in more than one subject area, and the questions are organized under year-long grade-wide curriculum themes. The curriculum helps students know themselves as learners, understand their place in the world around them, and develop a love of learning – as well as teach fundamental skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Think about what it means to be a fifth grader at Ridgefield Academy, moving between classes in the Annex building; exploration might be the perfect theme for a Grade 5 student. Having completed a year of exploring, and now in the first year as upper school students, Grade 6 students will have stories to tell as part of the storytelling theme. Is there any word that better captures what it means to be a Grade 7 student than change? (There isn’t, so that’s the theme for that grade). Grade 8 student learning is framed through the lens of leadership, prompting students to examine the qualities and outcomes of leadership.

Case Study: Thematic Teaching in Practice

Grade 7, as mentioned earlier, examines all the year’s content through the lens of change.
  • In English class, as students read The Outsiders, they focus on change by answering the questions such as, “How do we deal with loss?”
  • In history class, students study immigration and the American Dream through the question, “What does it mean to be an American?”
  • In science, students learn about disease through the question, “How do agents of change influence human systems?”;
  • French and Spanish classes explore the cultures of French- and Spanish-speaking countries through the question, “How do we gain an appreciation of cultural differences between countries?”
  • In Art class, students consider, “What role does persistence play in revisiting, refining, and developing works of art?”
  • In Technology, students examine “How has technology reshaped our lives?”


At RA, we focus on deep learning. Each question is derived from the core skills that teachers want students to master. The themes come directly from teachers' expert knowledge of learning requirements for each grade. As educators, we are excited when we see students apply their new knowledge, make connections between classes, and keep asking questions.

Through the combination of essential questions and key understandings for each grade, and specific content in each class, students at RA learn all the skills that are necessary at each age. Now that learning is tied to a theme that recognizes and meets students where they are developmentally, students are even better prepared to become confident leaders, creative problem-solvers, strong self-advocates and accomplished scholars.