Pictured: High School students learn to calculate distance between points in two and three dimension during a Hong Kong Atlas field trip.
How often do we find our students reluctant or unable to recognise and use knowledge they already have to help them solve or understand new problems and related concepts? This phenomena can be directly tied to the ways in which students initially learn information where there is great emphasis placed upon specialized knowledge. Learning content segregated into subject area instruction often prevents students from making important interconnections between the subjects they study.
Consider The Evergreen State College (TESC) located in the Pacific Northwest of the United States founded in 1967. At TESC, there are no required classes, no majors, and no grades. Students write self evaluations of their learning and receive a written evaluation from their professor. The combination of the two make up the students’ transcript. Also unique about this university is the curriculum. The majority of the core coursework is done in interdisciplinary, integrated curriculum, where science and art, mathematics and culture, as well as any other combination of subjects are commingled and taught in the same course, at the same time. The value of this type of instruction brings cooperation between the disciplines, and creates a curriculum that is more flexible and relevant.
I chose the example of The Evergreen State College for multiple reasons. The first is personal; I graduated from TESC with a teaching degree, my son earned his bachelor's degree there, and there are two THS parents that met and graduated from there. The second reason is as a twelfth grade advisor helping THS seniors make decisions for college and university applications, it is important for students and parents to also consider beyond the Ivy League and big name universities. There are many smaller, or lesser known, but still excellent colleges and universities in the US, Canada, Europe and other parts of the world, that should be considered and applied to. TESC is one of such colleges which may be a good fit for a THS graduate. On a side note, I was once offered and accepted a teaching job at an international school in Antananarivo, Madagascar based solely on the fact I had graduated from TESC. The director of this school knew TESC’s reputation as an innovative, progressive and groundbreaking university and wanted a TESC alumni on his teaching staff. Like TESC, The Harbour School High School aim to produce thinkers prepared for the real world, and not simply exam-takers.
Making learning relevant
After the successful pilot of interdisciplinary curriculum in Term 3 of the last academic year, THS High School now offer the integrated model in the majority of the classes it offers. For mathematics in the high school, we are implementing a two-fold approach. We have pure mathematics classes as well as applied mathematics courses. The traditional courses of advanced algebra, pre-calculus, and calculus courses are all on offer. For the first time at our school, students can enroll in interdisciplinary mathematics courses that include topics such as cartography and social science, geometry and art, computer and statistics.
Math meets social studies
In the first term of this year, 20 high school students enrolled in a class called “Hong Kong Atlas”. It includes study of the history, human geography, and modern realities of Hong Kong, as well as mathematical concepts that include how coordinate planes are related to latitude and longitude, and Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Students in this class have learned how to draw a map to scale, using ratio and proportion.
The practical nature of this course has been met with enthusiasm by students. Jewel, a Grade 9 student described the rigorous course which involves Geometry concepts and studying the geography and history behind some of Hong Kong’s urban districts as “more interesting because we can actually use them in our everyday life”.
Lily, a Grade 11 student said, “We are able to take what we have (learned) out into the field...and apply it to the world around us.” Michael, a Grade 9 student felt that the course which took students on many field trips has helped him gain a “better perspective on how math can be used in practical situations.”
Connecting the dots
What other interdisciplinary courses does the mathematics team have on offer this year at THS? Starting in Term 2, a class titled Angles, Art and Mathematics will allow students to study the pure mathematics of geometry for two terms while creating works of art based on classical and organic forms. Also on offer is Big Data, a course that looks at the changes to our world as a result of the explosion of data and the Internet. Students will learn to use statistical and data analysis to represent data that affects their lives in compelling graphics. All of these interdisciplinary mathematics courses are designed to link and connect THS students with the applied concepts of mathematics and their world.
If you are interested in learning why interdisciplinary education is the future of education, read this Guardian article published this year, or this excellent article by our own High School Principal, Dr. Elizabeth Micci.