Has the time to connect finally come?

Ken Muir, former GTCS Chief Exec and previously HM Chief Inspector of Education, asks: will IDL feature in the post-pandemic re-imagining of the Scottish education system?

Three recent events, which at first seemed totally unconnected, prompted me to think about where we are with interdisciplinary learning (IDL) in our schools. 

The first was my re-reading of notes I took at a pre-Covid RSE lecture given by Prof. Ian Goldin of Oxford University.  In it he said “Today is the best day of our lives because tomorrow will be much more complex.  There is no historical precedent for where we are now.”  Prof. Goldin’s words at the time struck me as being prophetic and have proved to be just that with the clear exposure of the complex connections we have at a global level shown by the devastating impact of the Covid pandemic over the past year.

The second event was an article in the Herald newspaper which said that researchers suggested the work of Leonardo da Vinci could help schoolchildren tackle the climate crisis.  The researchers argue that replicating da Vinci’s ability to work across areas of knowledge rather than being stuck in subject “silos” can help learners make connections and nurture the problem-solving skills necessary to overcome the existential challenges of the future.

The third event was an inspiring lecture given by Prof. Jonathan Powles from the University of the West of Scotland in which he suggested that the central mission of education is about making connections.

As all teachers will be well aware, the Curriculum for Excellence support document, Building the Curriculum 3, pointed out that learning at both primary and secondary stages “should be made available in a range of ways including interdisciplinary learning and a range of opportunities which ensure a broad approach, enabling, for example, a coherent understanding of environmental issues” and that “Well-designed interdisciplinary studies at these stages often provide highly motivating contexts for learning which can help children to see links between and the relevance of different aspects of the experiences and outcomes.”.

The refreshed narrative on Scotland’s curriculum, prepared in response to a recommendation made by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), reinforces the important role of IDL.  It states that the curriculum should include the space and opportunities that enable children and young people to make connections between different areas of learning to help deepen understanding and make the curriculum more coherent and meaningful to learners.

The refreshed narrative also exemplifies in more detail the four fundamental capacities at the heart of education and central to Scotland’s curriculum.  One of these capacities is to:

“recognise the knowledge, skills and attributes that children and young people need to acquire to thrive in our interconnected, digital and rapidly changing world”.

In Scotland, we have even gone as far as to have integrative projects in the four Scottish Baccalaureates at SCQF Level 7 as one way of encouraging interdisciplinary working and learning.

Despite these curricular directives, and although there has been progress, meaningful IDL in Scotland remains a largely unfulfilled aspiration in the curriculum of many schools. I have seen for myself over many years as an HMI, very good primary and secondary teachers doing all they can in their lessons to make connections across areas of the curriculum to enhance and give coherence to learning.  Some of the most effective has been where teachers, either individually or collaboratively, have been bold and had the confidence to allow learning to develop “organically”, with children and young people leading the exploration of a topic or theme as their enquiry and creativity directs them.  However, all too often, teachers have pointed to the fact that, while valuable, such opportunities are restricted by overly bureaucratic and restrictive demands of planning placed on them.  Headteachers and curriculum planners point to the need to “cover an already over-loaded curriculum” and “preparation for subject examinations” which limit the scope for meaningful IDL. 

To get an updated perspective on IDL, I turned to some of my Finnish colleagues where the new Finnish school curriculum, introduced in 2016, includes the requirement that all learners in each year of their nine-year basic education (ages 7-15) undertake one ‘multidisciplinary learning module’ or ‘phenomenon-based learning module’ as they have become known.  This caused much curiosity at the time with questions being asked as to why such an apparently successful education system (albeit based largely on PISA scores) was rejecting its traditional, subject-based curricular structure in favour of something so radically different.  Of course, as it has turned out, Finland’s subject-based curriculum remains in place although the annual ‘multidisciplinary learning module’ is now embedded into the curricular structure of all schools across the country.

The arguments made in Finland for these ‘multidisciplinary learning modules’ and a multidisciplinary approach to learning being integral parts of the curriculum are no different to those made for IDL as part of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence.

  • They can promote and encourage the more active engagement of children and young people in their learning which can enhance their understanding of complex, interconnected local and global issues.
  • They provide a context in which learners can apply knowledge and skills from different subjects and make connections across learning, allowing them to develop important skills like communication, critical and creative thinking, problem solving and teamwork.
  • They can provide a means by which learners have more freedom to build their own knowledge, which is transferable, and gives them a deeper understanding of what they are studying.

Finnish researchers suggest it is still too early to determine the impact of their multidisciplinary module.  While there are examples of good practice emerging, so too are suggestions that national guidance on implementing the modules is too broad, resulting in variation of how the modules are being implemented across the country.  Some concerns have been expressed about how the modules relate to the Finnish curriculum’s seven transversal competencies and how the modules support progression in knowledge and skills in subjects.  Finnish teachers also report the need for more support and training in delivering the multidisciplinary module.

There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from Finland’s determined efforts to give much greater prominence to IDL in the curriculum.  The Finnish government clearly sees the merits in its children and young people engaging in interdisciplinary modules and learning as a means of enhancing and connecting their learning in our increasingly complex and interconnected world.

As we in Scotland are being urged to use the disruptive effects of the pandemic as a call to radically reimagine our education system, including what and how we teach, will IDL feature?  Has its time to help learners make much-needed connections in their learning finally come?

Ken Muir was Chief Executive and Registrar of the General Teaching Council for Scotland for seven years until early 2021 and was previously HM Chief Inspector of Education. He is now an Honorary Professor at the University of the West of Scotland.

Featured image: Forth Shore at Kinghorn. © 2021 Nick Hood.

One thought on “Has the time to connect finally come?”

  1. Regarding the earlier iteration of IDL in the curriculum, and the thinking that learning should be made available in various ways, ‘including’ IDL, I think this raises some interesting issues.

    Currently, Literacy, Numeracy, and Health and Wellbeing have priority status in CfE. It may be that, in some schools, and to varying degrees, a proportion of timetabled time previously occupied by other subjects is redistributed to enable an increase in hours for priority subjects. Perhaps this is to reify their status, interpret ‘priority’ in a literal way, as ‘more of’, more critical, and so forth – however, what of literacy and numeracy ‘across learning’?

    If certain subjects take priority over others (therefore, rendering others lower priority), then what about the success of IDL? Can authentic interdisciplinary learning occur in a narrow curriculum?
    What if more time in mathematics and language lessons per week does little more than cater for those who already understand the coding systems within literacy and numeracy, rather than those who might be able to do from a more ‘natural’ knowledge base of another subject.

    If we prioritise some subjects over others, can we genuinely support all learners – and if we cannot support all learners, then by prioritising some subjects over others, do we prioritise some learners over others?

    Using a jigsaw as a metaphor for curriculum knowledge –

    What if we deconstruct the notion of subjects such as Language, Mathematics, Sciences, etc., and think of the curriculum as a series of coding systems? Each one is acting as a jigsaw piece component of a more significant body of knowledge. The coding systems vary according to how each subject uses them and how they are organised and sequenced. However, the lines, shapes, curves, angles, dots, and dashes used in language and mathematics are no different than those in, e.g., drawing, music, and science.

    What if, before meaningful ID learning can occur and before learners can ‘recognise’ then understand other forms of information, they need to take ownership of their preferred coding system – their jigsaw piece?

    If some jigsaw pieces (subjects/disciplines as ways of knowing and constructing meaning) have priority status over others, or their parts are too small to connect, then what becomes of the jigsaw – and the learner’s ability to understand it – to see, and understand, the picture in its entirety?
    Does the attainment gap exist in the child, or because certain information is unavailable to the child?

    In some cases, it may be that more hours in one form of learning guarantees more effective learning (as in the pursuit of mastery) the decision to offer children whose jigsaw pieces originate, as for example, in Art, Music, and Drama fewer hours in expressive arts to create more space for priority subjects seems counter-productive.

    When jigsaw pieces connect, do they allow a reframing of information and ‘new’ learning but in the child’s unique way of knowing and understanding? Recognising the shapes of spaces in the jigsaw and knowing for certain one’s jigsaw piece is a perfect fit.

    Do we need to give more thought to ‘start point’ ways of knowing and understanding – essentially, not simply what the child learns, but how the child learns and thinks, as an individual?

    Perhaps authentic interdisciplinary learning begins with the child’s single jigsaw piece of understanding and the teacher who recognises this as the child’s early capabilities and who also knows how to connect to the child’s own way of thinking.

    While timetabled IDL, such as IDL days, afternoons, or weeks, where learning contexts and learning outcomes are often predetermined, to what extent is learning genuinely transformational?

    Is it time to ‘prioritise’ all subjects – or simply open up the curriculum once more.

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