Interdisciplinary learning is too 'ill-defined'

2nd August 2013 at 01:00
Key tenet of CfE is `well-intentioned' but falls short on its radical promises, academic claims

One of the most crucial ideas in Scottish curriculum reform risks failure because it has been too vaguely defined, according to findings from a leading academic.

Interdisciplinary learning, a phrase that has become common currency in classrooms over recent years, is described as no more than a "modest adjustment" that falls well short of Curriculum for Excellence's initially radical promises, it is claimed.

The University of Stirling's Walter Humes, writing in Scottish Educational Review, observes that interdisciplinary learning, which is supposed to transcend rigid boundaries between subjects, has in Scotland been "well- intentioned but rather ill-defined".

Professor Humes, who scrutinised Curriculum for Excellence documentation and supporting materials from Education Scotland, finds the notion of interdisciplinary learning recommended in CfE "a relatively modest adjustment to traditional forms of curriculum organisation".

He points to examples of interdisciplinary learning on the Education Scotland website, set out in terms of CfE "experiences and outcomes", and says "it would be unfortunate if pupil interest were discouraged by an inflexible insistence that everything must be subordinated to pre- specified outcomes".

Professor Humes, who has also drawn on discussion at a workshop held by the Young Academy of Scotland Curriculum for Excellence working group, recalls the views of Scottish teachers after a study trip to Denmark, where interdisciplinary learning is well established: more time was needed for planning rather than leaving projects "to the commitment of and enthusiasm of individuals". They also made a case for school "IDL co- ordinators", especially in secondaries.

Upper-secondary work "tends to be undervalued" without some form of assessment, Professor Humes adds, and it may not be easy to provide universities with evidence that interdisciplinary projects outside school have value. But it "would not be impossible" to develop appropriate assessment, he stresses.

Interdisciplinary learning raises the prospect of joint endeavours between schools and outside bodies, and Professor Humes cites cautionary tales from other professions: "the research evidence on inter-professional working (involving, eg, teachers, nurses and social workers) is not particularly encouraging, highlighting differences in language, values and relationships to clients".

A Scottish government spokeswoman said interdisciplinary learning "promotes the development and application of what has been taught in new and different ways - much more like the real-life scenarios young people will face in the world of work and further study".

She added: "It also provides opportunities for deeper learning, for example through exploring an issue from different perspectives and solving complex problems."

An Education Scotland spokesman said it had published a "comprehensive briefing note" on interdisciplinary learning, and that it was "building on that by capturing and sharing the growing number of examples of good practice that we encounter". This would help to "accelerate the spread of high-quality, well-planned interdisciplinary learning opportunities".


The latest edition of Scottish Educational Review includes several articles that discuss concerns around Curriculum for Excellence.

Rachel Millar (University of Strathclyde) and Donald Gillies (York St John University) explore the concept of "successful learners" and find it shrouded in ambiguity that has "the potential to have a negative impact on classroom practice".

Teachers have to be wary of damaging interpretations "which focus on being the `best', on being `smart', or which are reserved for the highest levels of attainment", or which "privilege rapidity of progress, the mechanical overtaking of itemised `learning outcomes', or the uncritical ingestion of information".

Stephen Day (University of the West of Scotland) and Tom Bryce (University of Strathclyde), find CfE creating confusion around the priorities of science education. Policy emphasis, for example on moral and ethical debate, marks "a radical departure from most science teachers' current practice", where greater priority is placed on assimilation of key concepts.

Photo credit: Alamy

Original headline: Interdisciplinary learning is still too `ill-defined'

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