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Generative Topics
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Introduction to Generative Topics

Determining what materials to teach in a course can be one of the most challenging tasks a teacher faces. Our students have so much to learn - and so little class time in which to begin to learn it. How do we make decisions about what to include in a course? What material is going to be the most fruitful? In teaching for understanding, the answer is "generative topics".

Generative topics are issues, themes, concepts, and ideas that provide enough depth, significance, connections, and variety of perspectives to support students' development of powerful understandings.

Key Features of Generative Topics

  • Generative topics are central to one or more domains or disciplines. Issues that foster understanding allow students to gain the necessary skills and understanding to proceed successfully to more sophisticated work in the domain or discipline. Typically such issues are also of interest to professionals in the field.

  • Generative topics are interesting to students. The generativity of a topic varies with the age, social and cultural contexts, personal interests, and intellectual experiences of students.

  • Generative topics are interesting to the teacher. Their teacher's passion for and curiosity about a particular issue or question will serve as the best model for students who are just learning how to explore the unfamiliar and complex territory of open-ended questions.

  • Generative topics are accessible. Accessibility in this case means that lots of age-appropriate resources are available to investigate the topic and that it can be addressed through a variety of strategies and activities that will help students with various strengths and inclinations make sense of it.

  • Generative topics offer opportunities for multiple connections. They give students the chance to make connections to their previous experiences, both in and out of school. They have an inexhaustible quality: they can always be explored more and more deeply.

Examples of Generative Topics

  • In biology: the definition of life, rain forests, dinosaurs, endangered species, global warming.

  • In mathematics: the concept of zero, patterns, equality, representations in signs and symbols, size and scale.

  • In history: maritime disasters, survival, revolution, conflict, power.

  • In literature: interpreting texts, folktales, humor, multiple perspectives.

Planning Generative Topics

A first step in planning generative topics is to brainstorm ideas, preferably with colleagues. Think about what interests you most. Think about topics that have sparked your students' interest in the past.

Once you have identified ideas that seem particularly promising, create idea webs around them. Let your thinking range broadly: consider concepts, projects, resources, connections, and so on. Webbing is an opportunity to be adventurous. The ideas in the web can be refined later as you sort out what's most important.

Next, make selections from the idea web. Focus on those sections of the ideas web that have the thickest nests of connections. Look for topics that are steeped in controversy, that are open to considerations from many different perspectives, that don't lend themselves to "right" answers, and that require students to formulate their own opinions.

Consult with other teachers, with friends, or with community members knowledgeable in the domain in which you are teaching. Ask them what they think the "big ideas" are in that domain or discipline.

Refining Your Brainstorm about Generative Topics

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you are refining your web of ideas on generative topics:

  • Do the Generative Topics represent fundamental concepts or themes in your domain?

  • Is it interesting and exciting to students?

  • Is it interesting and exciting to you?

  • Does it provide opportunities for students to make connections to other classes as well as life outside of school?

  • Does it have related resources and materials to make the topic accessible to students?

  • Are the Generative Topics presented in engaging ways to your students?

Teaching with Generative Topics

An important step toward making generative topics part of your teaching practice is to get to know your students. What are their likes and dislikes? What issues (in the news, in their personal lives, in their other classes) spark their interest? Are there any topics about which they hold strong opinions or enjoy arguing?

Early in the unit, you might also ask your students to create their own webs around the topic. Notice where their "connection concentrations" are. What new angles, issues, or perspectives do their idea webs suggest?

Finally, it is important to give your students time. No topic can be generative if your students do not have enough time to explore the material, make connections, and develop their understanding. Students should be allowed the time they need to explore essential content rather than covering large blocks of less generative material.

Common Questions About Generative Topics

Is teaching with generative topics the same as thematic teaching?

It can be, if the themes you choose to focus on are accessible to students, central to a domain or discipline, and have connections to students' experiences both in and out of school. One key difference is that thematic approaches to teaching tend to be interdisiplinary, but generative topics can be approached either across disciplines or through a single discipline.

How can I transform a set of topics that must be taught into generative topics?

Some teachers try putting a new spin on an old topic. For instance, ponds, cells or the desert - typical topics for biology and general science classes might be taught as part of a unit on interdependance.


As you think about your own teaching, you might want to note the answers to some of the following questions in your Backpack notepad or in a document within a design:

  • Which topics that you have taught strike you as being the most generative? What makes you think so?

  • Which topics did your students find most interesting? (If you don't know, ask them!) which did they find least intersting?

  • Which topics did you find most interesting? Which were least interesting?

  • What new connections or associations emerged as you brainstormed and created the idea web?

  • Where are the "thick" parts of the web? Can you use them to put a new, generative spin on an old topic?

  • In what ways is the emerging generative topic interesting to you? How might it be interesting to your students?

  • Does the topic seem important to the domain or discipline?

© Tina Blythe and Associates, (1998). The Teaching for Understanding Guide. Jossey-Bass, San Fransisco.


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