Some Problems with Topic Planning

This weekend there developed an interesting conversation on Twitter about the merits and drawbacks of planning using Topics. Several of those involved agreed to write blogs outlining and expanding their views on the subject.
@MissHorsfall – Creative Cross Curricular Contexts
@rpd1972 – Contexts for Learning
@ChrisChivers2 – Topic work; taking the long view
@cherrylkd – Victorians for my special learners
@michaelt1979 – The importance of curriculum design
@ethinking – Authentic narrative in cross-curricular planning
@ethinking – Flipping school

This is my contribution.

Topic Planning

Topic planning has been popular in primary schools since the early 1970s. Its proponents maintain it can create coherent study links across different subject areas. And there is no doubt, in the hands of an experienced teacher, planning methodically and systematically, it can be used to plan engaging and relevant activities for cross-curricular learning.

However, as an approach, it does have some significant drawbacks that can make it difficult to use well and sometimes result, when used badly, in ineffective learning experiences for students.

1.    Topic planning sometimes lacks content

I learnt to plan using topics on my PGCE course at University. The method was to choose a topic area, for example ancient Egypt, and then think of relevant areas of study and activities that were related to the topic.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt was a good topic because it involved a lot of content and made straightforward, coherent, links across subject areas. History topics generally have these strengths.

However, some topics lack subject content and can quickly lose structure and coherence. I remember one my friends on the course came completely unstuck trying to plan and teach a topic called, Mushrooms.

What she discovered was that a topic on mushrooms does not in itself make natural and coherent links across the curriculum. Neither does it create much interest for the students: unlike making mummies and exploring tombs for example. Therefore, she had to work hard to invent activities, of a mushroom theme, that both linked across the curriculum and grabbed her students’ attention – such as making mushroom soup and writing mushroom poems – rather than concentrating on activities that developed their existing knowledge and skills. Every activity, as a consequence, either stood or fell on whether the students were interested in it or not, and not on whether it was educationally valuable.

This is a real problem for some topics. Not all lack subject content, but for those that do – like Mushrooms – then there is a tendency for the topic to lead the learning, rather than for the learning to lead the topic. Students’ needs, in regards to the content of the curriculum, take second place, as the teacher is forced to spend their time and energy creating activities that are linked to the subject of the topic, rather than concentrating on making the activities meaningful, coherent, and relevant.

2.    Topic planning sometimes lacks meaning

Learning is about meaning making, that is students studying the content of the curriculum and, with a teacher’s help, converting that content into something meaningful inside their own minds. Primary schools generally value creating links across the curriculum because they believe it helps their students to make meaning, by linking skills, knowledge, and understanding, from one area of the curriculum, to those from another.

However, sometimes when this is done through a topic, the topic itself can be a distraction, and get in the way of students’ making sense of what they are studying and how it joins up with their existing knowledge.

This is not just a problem with topic; other kinds of curriculum planning can suffer just as much from the same problem. However, it is only topic that puts a theme (ancient Egypt, mushrooms) at the centre of the planning process and then builds learning opportunities, curriculum exploration, and lesson activities from there. Other kinds of planning approaches start with what they want the children to learn and then build activities and experiences from that starting point. It is, therefore, even more important for a teacher using the topic approach to be aware of what learning is being developed when they plan an activity. Sloppy topic planning can very easily lead to classroom activities that are more about making tenuous links to the theme, than they are about incremental and rational development of student learning.

3.    Topic planning sometimes lacks purpose

It is easy to see how topics generate links across the curriculum and how they help to make it easier for teachers to plan. Their design can be a creative process and many primary school teachers enjoy building elaborate topic webs around their favourite themes. Library topic boxes and publishers’ catalogues make them easy to resource and there is a whole book industry built around topic planning, activities, and displays.

However, it is not so easy to see how they generate purposeful learning.

What is the purpose of a topic exactly?

For example, what is the purpose of the ancient Egypt topic? Study, obviously, but what else? Is there a reason, a purpose, or an outcome to the children’s work or is the topic just something the children study because the teacher asks them to?

For some teachers that will be enough, and for some topics the content alone will probably justify its study. But, can we say this is true of all topics? Certainly, I would suggest, not the one on mushrooms. What was the purpose of that?

My point is, the topic planning process does not mandate a purpose for the children’s work. Teachers using topic might introduce a purpose – the creation of an Egyptian museum for example – or – a real world purpose, like a parent’s assembly, where the students share their learning – but these kinds of activities are not something planned into all topics, they are extra and cover up some of its deficiencies. Many topics taught in primary schools do not include a teacher planned purpose and suffer as a consequence.

Although there are some advantages to topic planning – it makes links across the curriculum, it can make planning easier and more interesting for teachers, and can make the curriculum more meaningful and engaging for students – it also contains some serious weaknesses when done badly.

Careful and systematic planning and preparation can mitigate some of these disadvantages, but a great deal depends on the subject content of the topic and the teacher planning in extra activities and outcomes to create added purpose and meaning.

Would it be better then to teach by discreet subjects in primary school?

Undoubtedly, yes, for some of the time. And this is what every primary school in the country does in practice: PE, music, maths, and phonics are often taught as discrete lessons. However, there are two major disadvantages to teaching the whole of the curriculum subject by subject in primary schools.

1.  Time

Switching from one subject to another every hour or so is a very inefficient use of time. Time that could be better spent learning is wasted preparing for the next subject, reorganising the classroom, collecting resources, etc. Primary schools recognise it makes much more sense to cover two or three subjects in the same time period, than it does to keep switch between subjects with all the kerfuffle this involves.

2. Making meaning

The primary school curriculum requires children to develop knowledge, skills, and understanding in ten different knowledge domains from the age of six. By any measure this is a tall order. But parcelling up every knowledge domain into a separate lesson, with different activities that don’t link with the previous lesson’s activities, makes this order even taller. Primary school teachers know this approach doesn’t work with primary school children, it is ineffective, loses many, and leaves others behind.

Subject teaching has its place in primary schools, the teaching of discrete lessons is sometimes the best and most efficient approach, but as a single strategy it has very serious and important drawbacks that make it impractical and ineffective.

An alternative approach to planning

As I hope I’ve explained, both topic planning and subject-based planning have their strengths. My aim in writing this blog is not to rubbish these approaches, but to point out some of their weaknesses and flaws. Topic planning, in the hands of a well-organised teacher, can be a very effective and engaging strategy for exploring the curriculum. And subject based planning already plays an important role in primary schools. Nevertheless, even combining both strategies, which in effect is what most primary schools currently do, is not, in my opinion, the best approach available.

An alternative is to take the best elements of topic planning, combined with the rigour and application of subject-based learning, add elements that are missing from both, and create a new, different, approach.

Dorothy Heathcote spent much of her later career working on such a project. In 1995, she published her thinking in a book she co-wrote with Gavin Bolton called, Drama for Learning: the mantle of the expert approach.

In Drama for Learning, Heathcote recommended primary teachers use an inquiry-based approach for planning the curriculum. One that built imaginary contexts in the classroom, where the students took on the point of view of a responsible team, and explored the curriculum through activities required by working on commissions for a fictional client.

Her approach builds meaning into the children’s study, is focused on developing contextualised knowledge and understanding, as well as skills, and puts purposeful learning at the centre of the planning process.

For more information on mantle of the expert see Viv Aitken’s: Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert Approach to Teaching and Learning: a brief introduction


Leave a comment
  1. Duncan Partridge February 25, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    Hi Tim,

    Enjoyed this post. My memories of topic planning in the early days of my career are similar to yours – activity led, often drawing on artificial and somewhat tortuous links to the theme. It is interesting to compare this with the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme’s own approach to trans-disciplinary planning. In the PYP students engage with 6 annual ‘Units of Inquiry’ which are driven by clearly defined ‘central ideas’ and ‘lines of inquiry’. A tran-disciplinary approach to planning each unit is employed only to the extent that it will allow for students to develop understandings in relation to the Central Idea and pursue the Lines of Inquiry. Aspects of the curriculum not covered through Units of Inquiry are taught distinctly.

  2. Nancy February 25, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

    Yes, yes and yes. I have found all of these problem to both approaches – and am exploring giving chn ‘context’.
    The only problem I have found with ‘context’ lessons is that the chn became very excited (!) by the prospect of me as King Xerxes (although they liked my cloak), as they had clearly not experienced such an approach before. Then, the inquiry became somewhat problematic as they were somewhat bouncy! Something for me to learn from, and plan more carefully, should the opportunity to study those pesky enemies, the Greeks, arise again 🙂

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