Generalizations, big ideas, universal themes all help students to move towards abstraction, higher-order thinking, and making connections within and across topics.
They also helped me to get organized as a teacher as I spotted connections across and within the content that I had to teach.
Table of Contents
- What are they?
- Pick only one!
- Prove or Disprove
- Organize Instruction
- Assessing with Generalizations
Universal Themes are actually part of the Depth and Complexity framework. I’d say they are a very undeveloped part, though! While the eleven depth and complexity prompts are fairly popular, Universal Themes seem to have far less traction.
Let’s fix that!
Universal Themes are highly abstract, one-word ideas that can connect across (and within) any content regardless of your grade level.
They are not:
- Literary themes, like “Hero’s Journey” or “Loss of Innocence”
- Unit Themes, like “The Ocean” or “Machines”
- Decorative Themes, like “My classroom looks like a baseball stadium” or “My classroom looks like a farm.”
Those types of “themes” are not universal. Obviously not everything connects to “Hero’s Journey” or “The Ocean.” Universal Themes should connect across any topic, whether it’s fractions, Star Wars, or the Gold Rush.
Examples of Universal Themes
The most common examples of Universal Themes from the Depth and Complexity Framework are:
Notice that they are each highly abstract, one-word concepts that connect to any topic. There is Power in fractions, Star Wars, and The Gold Rush. You can spot power in science, poetry, basketball, and history. These themes are abstract enough to be truly universal.
Psst! I have student-centered videos for introducing many of the Universal Themes.
You will pick one (and only one!) and use it all year. Yes, it’s a commitment. But the whole purpose is to explore how all topics can connect using these abstract ideas. You can’t dig deep into Power if you are also juggling Order and Conflict.
My district actually rotated themes annually in such a way that students worked with a new theme each year and teachers had some variety as well.
- First and second-grade teachers switched between “change” and “order.”
- Third and fourth-grade teachers switched between “structure” and “conflict.”
- Fifth and sixth-grade teachers switched between “power” and “systems.”
If you’re the only one using Universal Themes at your school, obviously you have your pick!
Once you know which theme you’ll be using, it’s time to introduce it to students. The terms are so abstract they might be a bit difficult to even explain. My favorite introduction activity is to try brainstorming as many examples as possible.
I’d reserve a nice chunk of time – maybe 20 minutes and see if we could get 30 or 40 examples of the theme. I’d act as a scribe and students would shout ideas out.
The key here is to allow for some awkward silence. Students will mine one path and sorta run out of ideas. BUT! Let them sit silently for 90 seconds and someone will come up with a new train of thought.
When we did this with “Power,” kids would start with bland, obvious examples like:
- the sun
Eventually, by allowing lots of silence, we’d be coming up with thoughts like:
- Jackie Chan’s foot
- My mom’s face
- Doing what’s unpopular
Introducing a Universal Theme is an excellent use of the first days of school.
Within each Universal Theme are “Generalizations” or big ideas. These are statements about the Theme. They are less abstract (although still pretty applicable to most situations).
Working with “Power” as a theme, students could explore Generalizations such as:
- Power can be used or abused.
- Power comes in many forms.
- Power may be seen or unseen.
Here’s a list of Universal Themes and corresponding Generalizations from the Depth and Complexity framework.
I also collected and displayed Generalizations that my students made using our theme.
So now that students know their theme inside and out, and they’ve been exposed to a few statements or Generalizations, you can use these tools to differentiate.
Say you have a group that’s simply ready for something else. I’d have them Prove or Disprove:
- “Power can be seen or unseen” using evidence from Ancient Rome.
- “Systems can work with other systems” using evidence from our unit on biomes and adaptations.
- “Conflict leads to change” using evidence from our unit on narrative writing.
Then, those students can present to the rest of the class or write an essay or create some other final product. We’re moving these students to higher-order thinking while the rest of the class is on a grade-level topic.
Note: since we’re beginning with a big idea and then moving towards concrete examples, we’d call this a “deductive lesson.” You can learn more about deductive lessons here.
So, we can give students tasks in which they think using Universal Themes and/or Generalizations.
My favorite benefit of this tool, however, was how it impacted my own teaching. Organizing my instruction under a Universal Theme helped me to focus and, I think, develop much stronger lessons.
My science curriculum was a hot mess. I taught: heat transfer, earthquakes, volcanoes, types of clouds, electromagnetic spectrum, biomes, and more. There was no natural way to connect these topics except for “it’s science!”
But then I realized I could use my theme of “Power” to connect these ideas. There’s clearly power in each of those topics. Over a few years, I refined my idea and noticed that the generalization “Power can be seen or unseen” fit perfectly with these topics.
- Earthquakes: we can’t see an earthquake, but we can see its power.
- Heat: typically invisible, but its effects are easy to spot.
- Electro-magnetic spectrum: So perfect! X-Rays versus “visible light.”
I began teaching each lesson to the generalization. Today, as we learn about earthquake-safe structures, we’re going to focus on how “Power can be seen and unseen.” As we learn about convection currents, let’s think about where there is visible and invisible power. And so on.
My lessons became a lot more fun to write and teach.
Now, you don’t have to get that extreme, but consider how wrapping a dull lesson around a statement like “Conflict can lead to change” will bring out some juicy ideas you hadn’t considered.
After this success, I started attaching a big idea to each subject as a way of focusing students’ learning. I used:
- Ancient Civilizations: “Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty and dies with chaos.” – Will Durant (thanks to Araceli for this quote)
- Writing: “Good writing is clear, concise, and creative.”
Then, as the Theme and Generalizations became more and more a part of my instruction, I realized that I could also make this part of my assessment. Students started writing science essays with prompts like:
Prove or disprove that “Power can be seen or unseen” within plate tectonics.
This seriously raised the thinking game. What had previously been endless multiple-choice tests from our textbook became really interesting essays about an abstract idea.
Plus, although these generalizations definitely benefited my students, they also improved my own planning since it was so easy to connect my various content areas.
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