Why teach thematically? Because it gives your students a cognitive structure that lets them bind together all the details in your course. I’m hoping that the four themes listed below (which correspond to the four “Big Ideas” promoted by the College Board) will serve as a way to help you (or your students) organize the material that we’ll be learning about in AP Biology.


Course Themes

  1. Evolution
    1. Life has a history, consisting of events that unfolded in a contingent way. The features of living things can only be understood in relationship to life’s history.
    2. Because of evolution, the pattern of life shows both unity and diversity.
    3. Living things, unlike non-living things like planets or mountains, have adaptations: structures that perform functions.
    4. Adaptations are not only structural: they’re also behavioral. Living systems, as Richard Dawkins would say, are programmed survival machines, carrying out behaviors that promote survival and reproduction.
    5. The process of natural selection explains how adaptations arise.
  2. Systems
    1. Living things are complex systems with boundaries, inputs, processes, and outputs.
    2. Living things are composed of interacting subsystems, and are embedded within larger systems.
  3. Information flow
    1. Living things can pass on their genes – instructions for recreating themselves – to their offspring.
    2. Living things receive information, analyze it, and respond to it by transmitting information throughout their bodies and to other organisms.
  4. Matter and Energy Flow
    1. Living systems, during the course of their lives, can stave off entropy by channeling energy flow, enabling them to maintain high levels of order.
    2. Matter flows through all living systems.

Writing a Thematic Reflection

To write a thematic reflection on a chapter (or anything else you learned), consider the  following questions. They might not all fit the topic, but you can only make that determination by trying to see if the question makes sense in relationship to the topic that you’re reflecting upon.

  1. Evolution:
    1. What parts of this chapter touched on the idea of evolution?
    2. How did what you learn relate to the unity and diversity of life?
    3. Where in this reading were there examples of structure/function relationships?
    4. Where did you see examples of survival and reproduction strategies?
    5. If this reading focused on a specific adaptation, how does that adaptation work? How do you think that it evolved?
    6. Life is full of weird, quirky features that can only be explained by the fact that life was not engineered, but that it evolved over time. If there was evidence of features that can only be explained as a result of life’s contingent, quirky, historical nature, describe it.
  2. Systems
    1. What systems did you encounter? What were these systems’ boundaries, inputs, processes, and outputs?
    2. What were the subsystems of the systems you learned about? How did this subsystems interact? What relevant larger systems was this system embedded within?
  3. Information flow
    1. What in this chapter related to the idea that living things pass on their genes – instructions for recreating themselves – to their offspring?
    2. What related to the idea that living things receive information; analyze it, and respond to it?
  4. Matter and Energy Flow
    1. Where did you see information about how living systems maintain high levels of order by channeling energy flow?
    2. Where did you see discussion about how matter flows through all living systems?

Sentence frames for thinking, writing, and speaking thematically about biology

At Berkeley High school, we’ve been using a method called Constructing Meaning to support students in developing their Academic English skills. Here’s a preliminary set of sentence frames that I’ll use to guide my students’ thinking about the key themes of biology.

  1. Evolution:
    1. This _____________ demonstrated evolution in the following way: first…
    2. The idea of life’s unity  was shown by…At the same time, diversity shows itself as
    3. Structure/function relationships shown in this ____________ include…Here’s how this structure works:
    4. ______ is a survival and reproduction strategy because  
    5. ________ is an amazing adaptation because _______________
    6. _________ is an example of life’s historical, contingent nature because ________________
    7. Systems
    8. A systems that we encountered in this unit was the … This system’s boundaries are ______. Its inputs are ________________. System processes include _____________. The outputs were….
    9. This system included the following subsystems: ____________. Larger systems in which this system is embedded include ___________, __________, and _________.
  2. Information flow
    1. __________ related to the idea that living things can pass on their genes because ___________
    2. _______ showed that living things receive information; analyze it, and respond to it by _____________
  3. Matter and Energy Flow
    1. _______ was an example of how living systems maintain high levels of order by channeling energy flow. This was demonstrated by ______
    2. During __________, matter flows through ________. As it does ________

Theme comparison

Here are some of the thematic approaches I’ve looked at as I’ve developed my own themes. Note that what I’ve arrived at is pretty much the same as the College Board’s Big Ideas.

Nowicki* College Board/AP Biology Campbell Biology Other ideas that could be themes
Information and evolution evolution Evolution: unity and diversity emergent properties
Development and Homeostasis Information Transmission and expression of genetic Information
Energy and Resources Energy and Matter Energy and Matter
System Interactions Interactions
  • Organization
  • emergence
  • structure/ function
  • cells