It has been said that the only places that subjects such as Maths, Science, Language, etc. exist are in schools and universities. In the real world, these things integrate seamlessly into “life”. Of course, it is useful to break learning down into manageable “chunks”, but in most educational institutions around the world we seem to have confused the means (subjects) with the ends (learning/education). Far too many educators are all too ready to defend their “patch” (their subject, or discipline) at the expense of the overall effective learning of their students.
Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to be a foundation teacher at one of six new, flagship government secondary schools in Victoria, Australia. What I learned from my colleagues in that first year has been the foundation of almost everything I have done since. I worked with educators who talked about how students learned, how to engage them and how to care for them effectively. They were teachers of English, Mathematics, Art, etc. but talked about holistic learning and interdisciplinary learning as ways of making learning relevant and accessible to all students. They shared strategies for improving student engagement and learning. They realised that it was our responsibility to do much, much more than present curriculum content and help students pass exams.
Years later, I became involved with the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (MYP). Again, with a small group of teachers, we were concerned about how to deliver our courses in a holistic and interdisciplinary manner. We came up with “big ideas”, and planned our Years 7 to 10 curriculum so that each year level had a different big idea each term, and that there was a clear link between these big ideas between year levels. In addition, each term ended with some sort of presentation and/or performance. An interesting idea that arose was that of “service subjects”. These were areas that are predominantly skills-based, and could adapt to the content of other subjects. In particular, English and Mathematics were identified as subjects that could reinforce the learning in other subjects while simultaneously strengthening the learning of their own subject-specific content.
As my MYP journey continued it became apparent that H. Lynn Erickson’s work on concepts provides a solid context for big ideas, and for deep, effective student learning. If we consider Bloom’s Taxonomy of Thinking, too many teachers spend their time solely on memory, understanding and application, usually because that is all their curriculum requires. However, if we challenge students with the higher levels of thinking, then, as teachers, we need to have not only have a solid grasp of our curriculum content, but we need to understand exactly what are the underlying principles – the concepts. For example, many Humanities topics are about change, but so, also are topics in Science, Mathematics, languages, etc. Suddenly we have a very strong basis for deep learning in our subjects and interdisciplinary cooperation.
Combining a challenging question framework, such as Bloom, De Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats, etc. with Erickson’s concepts-based approach allows individual teachers to
– facilitate cooperative group work
– coach individuals and small groups
– plan work so that student learning goes far beyond curriculum requirements
– teach students to do meaningful research
– help students become genuine independent learners
– provide a classroom environment in which everyone learns, and everyone loves learning, including the teacher.
When teachers do this, and collaborate with their colleagues to plan interdisciplinary links based on natural content and/or big ideas, the sky is the limit in terms of providing lasting learning in young people. The motivation, engagement and achievement of students is amazing. The challenge in educating young people in this way is not to find the time – planning for deep learning is not an add-on, but a replacement for what we already do. The real challenge is to open our minds to see the possibilities of embracing the educational present.