Inspiration from the great Danes

15th October 2010 at 01:00
A group of teachers travelled to Denmark to study its approach to interdisciplinary learning

Joan Nelson was struck by the amount of time Danish teachers had at their disposal.

She had travelled to Copenhagen as part of a study group exploring interdisciplinary learning (IDL). Depending on the school, there could be a morning or afternoon blocked off for IDL, sometimes a whole week; 20 per cent of learning has to be interdisciplinary.

"Throughout the visit, the message was `fluid and flexible timetabling'," recalls the biology teacher from Glen Urquhart High in Drumnadrochit. Teachers might not know exactly what they had in store until arriving at school in the morning to open an email confirming arrangements for the next few hours.

In Scotland, where teachers do not have the same long history of autonomy as their Danish counterparts, even the most enthusiastic proponents of IDL can be daunted by its demands. "I panic at the thought of an ever-changing timetable," confesses Mrs Nelson.

Along with Barbara Gray, headteacher at Aberdeenshire's Charleston Primary, Mrs Nelson spoke at last month's Scottish Learning Festival about the visit in March with the Scottish Continuing International Professional Development programme.

They want to bring Denmark's commitment to IDL into their own schools, but first it is important to establish exactly what IDL is - and it is not cross-curricular learning. The latter term, Mrs Nelson explains, typically sees teachers "lumped together", each subject maintaining a discrete role.

"We (in Scotland) really struggle with interdisciplinary learning in secondary because we talk so much about subject specialists - and then you ask why kids can't transfer skills from one classroom to the next," says Mrs Nelson.

IDL marks a more profound shift from departmental boundaries, where ideas - which in Denmark flow from both teachers and pupils, not ministers or senior management - are king, and higher-order thinking ensues.

It is a "context for learning rather than a learning outcome", Mrs Nelson explains. The potentially endless and overwhelming possibilities, however, can be "tied down" using a tool on Glow, the schools intranet, which makes learning objectives explicit for each subject.

IDL is integral to Danish schools, "not a bolt-on", says Mrs Nelson. The same should be true of Scotland, she stresses, as Building the Curriculum 3 makes it clear that IDL is one of four "contexts for learning".

But in Denmark, the teams of three to five teachers assigned to specific IDL projects have much more time to plan. Although priority was given to lesson preparation in the 2001 teachers' agreement, priorities of different subjects can make planning "ad hoc, informal and inefficient" and teachers sometimes unwilling to become involved in new tasks.

Some teachers may need to be compelled to work in teams for IDL to take off in Scotland, Mrs Nelson believes. Creating a role of IDL co-ordinator in schools could also help.

In 245-pupil Glen Urquhart High, headteacher Gavin Maclean has changed the way the timetable works with IDL in mind, so that pupils can move between two classrooms when, for example, science, art and technology are working jointly on a project on dragster cars.

Meanwhile, Mrs Gray, who is seconded to Aberdeen City Council as a quality improvement officer, scotches the common belief that primary schools have already been "doing" the cross-curricular side of Curriculum for Excellence for years.

Such complacency misses a crucial point: that IDL is highly focused. Old- style school projects were often too broad. A project about the European Community, for example, might become a long list of interesting but unconnected facts. IDL, in contrast, is driven by what pupils want to know, rather than everything they could possibly find out.

Mrs Gray has been involved, through Learning and Teaching Scotland, in developing "Talk Money, Talk Numeracy", which explores financial education through numeracy and practical tasks.

Pupils turn detective and try to work out what they can tell about a fictional family from its bank statements. One of the family is getting married and pupils have to plan the wedding in teams, then their proposals are picked apart in Dragons' Den style.

These plans can be presented however the pupils wish, through PowerPoint, drama, or something else entirely. Mrs Gray had been struck by the enthusiasm of a Danish girl, at liberty to show her knowledge of Shakespeare in any way she liked, who had recorded a professional-sounding podcast brimming with enthusiasm.

In Denmark, each pupil is assessed on IDL work at the age of 16; employers take the results very seriously and often ask for copies of assessment folios, as they find the skills demonstrated more telling than exam certificates.

The flexible approach to assessment gives pupils "real ownership" of learning, observes Mrs Gray. For IDL to work, it is not only the project itself that must have space to shoot off in all directions, but the way it is assessed.

"Learning shouldn't be in boxes, because that's not what the world is like," she says.

The one note of scepticism struck by the Scottish visitors to Denmark concerned evaluation - or lack of it. IDL projects were not picked over endlessly by some pre-arranged method: whether something had worked or not was left to teachers' judgment.

The Danish teachers were almost blase about the absence of evaluation. Mrs Nelson does not advocate going that far, but she believes the success of IDL in Scotland will require teachers to embrace the unknown.

"If we're not 100 per cent sure how we're going to evaluate, we shouldn't let that stop us - sometimes you've just got to take a leap of faith and let it go."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today