Schools are funny places. They transport students from one (figurative) place to another at set, regular times. As soon as the bell rings, students check out of fractions and enter that of hydrospheres. Forty-five minutes later, they are off to sonnets. Each subject a neatly contained and isolated island of content. It’s quite a ride, every day, every subject, everything to remember and organize in one’s head.
Take a random student. She has a tricky piece of Math homework which she is rushing out and in the process, is late for Chemistry class. An hour later, she is sitting in History, yawning. It’s the summer of 1918 and the Russian Civil War had just broken out...so many dates, so many multi-syllabic names to take note. Her mind wanders. She wonders if that red crop top she glimpsed in Cotton On’s window is still on sale, and if she has time between French and netball practice to pick it up.
Fast forward 15 years. She is responsible for growing a new sales territory for a brand of soap. She needs to tap her expertise in consumer and product marketing, understand accounting, finance, chemistry, channels sales, human resources, sociology, psychology, statistics, cross-cultural communications, history and geography. In pursuing her (and the organization’s) overarching goals, she has to draw on a wide breadth of knowledge, experience and learning, moving from one to the next instantly and unconsciously in a perfect flow toward the production and delivery of ideas.
Nothing exists in isolation, and neither should learning
Schools have gone about as far as it can go with isolated instruction and learning. While it may have served the purpose for the generations before, it does not meet the deeper learning needs students of today and tomorrow require to properly equip them for a future that is automated.
In order to cultivate critical thinking, creativity, innovation, collaboration, and motivation (and all the other skills we aspire to develop in our students) teachers must also do. We must break down the barriers between disciplines, treating the appropriation of knowledge and the generation of ideas as the process of experiencing and learning, regardless of content labels. Learning and doing should reflect the interdependence that characterizes the world. Creating this context is one of our teachers’ greatest challenges.
Taking down these walls
A 21st century curriculum, necessarily, has no barriers between subject disciplines. Consequently, there is a need for teachers to expand their knowledge continuously, and rethink the way they approach learning.
For instance, scientific advancements have transformed the historian’s craft. No longer is it enough to pour over archival records or read memoirs. Today’s historian must have a command of chemistry, biology, and computer-aided design or CAD, among other things. To study the Vikings today requires one to make sense of the chemical decomposition of midden piles or how regional geology and human deforestation lead to soil erosion.
Let’s imagine a school that teaches about the effects of Imperialism on local economies by understanding the synergies of multicultural ecosystems. Let’s have a classroom where students learn about humanoids’ use of opposable thumbs to use tools at the same time they learn about the evolution of animals and plants. Let’s see our children use sextants as means of navigation on the Black Dolphin the day after re-enacting scenes from Treasure Island. By eliminating the barriers between academic disciplines, we can help students develop the skill sets and perspectives with which to succeed at university and at work.
The X factor
These are lofty goals and they require a special type of teachers. The fuzzing of distinctions between academic subjects requires our teachers to learn all the time, be flexible thinkers, to innovate and adapt their methods constantly and to work in close collaborative, interdisciplinary teams. It forces our teachers to master not only content, but imagine connections. It requires teachers to go beyond traditional textbooks and think of topics as part of the greater world. It means knowing students and engaging them individually based on their particular interests and motivations.
Our teachers have to ask questions such as “How can I bring in Marine Biology to deepen their understanding of Ancient Greece?”; “How will ecology tie in to the concept of Fair Trade through their unit of study on argumentative writing?” and “How will the students film their documentary on the Black Plague in the science lab?”
Teachers at our school have a tough job. We appreciate everything they do because we ask them to do nothing less than think and rethink everything, eschewing the pedagogy to which they were exposed when they were students and take on a fundamentally different approach to teaching, in an inclusive school, to engage students through experiential learning. Add to all of that, a growing school, a major construction and move.…
We are very fortunate to have such dedicated, flexible teachers who understand the vision and are willing to put in the work to create the environment in which students learn. It’s a privilege for me to work with them.