- High School
I recently saw “Everything Everywhere All at Once” on my way back to Hong Kong this summer and it instantly became a new favorite. In case you haven’t seen it, in a nutshell, it is a hero’s journey of a wearisome middle-aged immigrant mother desperate to keep up with her chaotic life. Her husband invites her into the metaverse where she jumps around in parallel worlds making self-discoveries along the way that ultimately lead her back to her sentient life with new insights that calm the chaos.
I am a newcomer to the metaverse, I suppose we all are, and while I do have my reservations I am enamored with the learning possibilities. In 21Y22 I was absolutely floored by an Independent Study Module presentation that used Minecraft. The Grade 9 student had built a virtual interactive world with a decentralized economy where he used price-fixing strategies to model market manipulation.
His economy was based on a rare item that was scarce and nonrenewable, making it a stable item for money. In the student's words, he went on to “dominate the market by playing ahead of everyone and artificially inflating prices of wanted items by holding a monopoly over them.” Interestingly, the intention of the project was altruistic and aimed to reveal the deceptive side of market economies that prey on investors and consumers.
This was like nothing I had ever seen in education and yet the blending of different subject matters is an age-old formula. It is not surprising that this experience propelled the student to continue to pursue finance through not only course selection but also through alternative opportunities such as internships.
Transformative learning comes in many forms and thankfully the metaverse and virtual worlds do not have a monopoly on this. In fact, most transformative learning experiences are tangible in nature, but no less mind-bending than what is sensationalized in Sci-Fi films.
My most profound learning experience was a study abroad program during college in East Africa. The focus of the program was Wildlife Conservation and Biodiversity, but this is where it gets interesting… was that really the focus? To be honest, I still don’t know. Not because I didn’t learn a lot of science, but rather because the experience transcended the topic in so many ways that to this day I can’t say there was one biggest takeaway. This existential feeling is a sure sign of passing the transdisciplinary litmus test.
Transdisciplinary learning means you are learning everything all at once in real-time. This may sound very meta and overwhelming, but it is not because everything is in its natural place just waiting to be discovered. Let me illustrate with my study abroad experience. Conservation in Tanzania has everything to do with gaining independence from the UK in 1961 and the vision of their first President, Julius K. Nyerere. His vision was inextricably linked to his ideology, Ujamaa. Ujamaa means community in Swahili, the official language of Tanzania. If you don’t know Swahili then you don’t learn about Wildlife Conservation and Biodiversity in Tanzania.
Granted this is a very simplified example, but I hope that I am making my point clear and you are seeing the theme emerge that seemingly unrelated subject matters, such as science, history, and language can be very naturally nested within one another.
It was expected that all students at Bates College would study abroad during their Junior year. There are many good reasons for this, the least of which was one of their main selling points, employability. To be fair, it is really hard to distill the benefits of studying abroad without it sounding like an exotic travel package, especially my program where I was on safari for weeks at a time. The truth of the matter is, I was instantly more employable after my 6 months of being in the bush, not because it was a resume booster, but because I peaked as a self-assured learner ready to take on real-world challenges.
After graduation, I eagerly jumped into the workforce with confidence. I interviewed well and in a flash, I was working as a biologist in an Environmental Consulting firm. Clearly, a lot has changed in 25 years as blog away today from the perspective of a High School Principal, yet at the heart of my career decisions remains a yearning to capture this feeling I had in 1998 in Africa.
For those of you who know THS well, this quite clearly spells out my motives for being at The Harbour School. Transdisciplinary learning is a rare find in International Schools and nearly unheard of in secondary years. High-stakes testing and standards have become the norm on the international scene rendering Diploma Programs unoriginal and often detrimental to students by creating the equivalent of a Barbie standard for testing performance. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about THS, it is not a counter-culture fully transdisciplinary school, but we very proudly practice integrated learning.
Transdisciplinary learning is the highest form of integrated learning, a term often thrown around in education to mean many things. I have come to understand the model through the work of Susan Drake and Joann Reid and saw it effectively in action at The Green School between 2010 - 2018.
There are three levels starting with multidisciplinary which is best described as thematic learning taught by individual teachers over different disciplines. This is the most typical form of integrated learning seen at the secondary level. The most obvious example of this at THS is our water theme. In High School, this theme is explicitly found in many course titles including Regenerative Aquaculture, Sailing and Leadership, Hydroponic Oasis, and the Sustainable Oceans Livable Earth initiative with Global Project Development.
Second, there is interdisciplinary learning which most often looks like two teachers from different disciplines or specializations co-teaching a class, unit, or module. At THS this might be a MS Intensive at the Foundry where MS teachers collaborate and plan with the Dean and Francis. If it is done well then it is a co-creation that provides a synergetic learning experience.
Lastly, there is the big daddy of them all, transdisciplinary learning. Other than the one mentioned earlier on, I have many THS examples that are obvious to me, but I would like to pose this as a question to you.
What do you think transdisciplinary learning looks like at THS? When has your child been moved by a learning experience that has caused them to pause and scratch their head as they unpack their learning? What deep connections have they revealed beyond what you expected?
PS If you need a prompt have a glance at the photos below: