Tips for Teaching with Generative Topics

One aspect of developing a practice of teaching that focuses on understanding is using what is called “generative topics”. These are topics that are both interesting to students and to teachers and often reach across curricula. Because of their open-ended nature, they are accessible to students of various abilities and also can yield a wide range of resources.

Yet, with so much open about generative topics, how can we as teachers use them to bridge our students towards thinking, learning, and ultimately understanding?

For starters, it is important to keep the open nature of generative topics as reduction to a series of closed answer questions, with specific answers, formulates that generative topic into a series of responses. In other words, they should not be reduced to a series of yes/no questions or ones that have a factoid attached to them. Students will quickly lose interest and instead will revert back to seeking teacher approval rather than considering their thinking.

Using generative topics will also require an adjustment in the way we teach. The shift away from a teacher-centered classroom into a student-centered one has thus began with this simple exercise. It also requires us to get to know our students a bit more – thinking about what interests them in order to hook their interests while fueling their curiosity on their way to understanding. Start by considering what will spark their interests?

Brainstorm your ideas. Start with what interests you and really dig into them by creating a web or mind map. Look for clusters of ideas that make the most connections – these will be your big ideas. The ones that create controversy and will stimulate interest in your students the most are the ones you should select. Again, these should be generative in nature, open-ended with no specific answer or resolution, but ones in which there is plenty of room for discussion and argumentation.

One way to really shift your practice is to take you current course, look over the units you already have planned, and convert them into generative topics. Once you are able to do that, you are on the path to shifting your practice. Your work is by far not over, but only just beginning.

Next Steps

I am going to look over my current courses (AP Art History, AP World History, Latin III Honors) and start this process myself. After I find some generative topics, I will then move on to the next step in the process – fleshing out understanding goals for each unit and for the entire course.