Let's change the subjects

8th January 2010 at 00:00

Who came up with the idea of dividing knowledge into different subjects? And who thought it was a good idea to use these subjects as the basis for secondary-school learning? Dividing and categorising knowledge for learning purposes has significant drawbacks. In the real world, we don't think in terms of subjects: we think in terms of situations and problems.

There is also the difficulty of delineating where one subject's body of knowledge and skills ends and another begins. Too many important topics fall between the cracks. Learning facts has become a significantly less important part of what schools do. Learning to think and learning to learn are much more important in the modern world.

And let's consider the plight of the school struggler transferring from a single classroom and a single teacher in P7 to 14 or more rooms and teachers in S1. That's 13 additional names, rooms, sets of room rules and sets of books, jotters and homework. It is also one of the reasons so many learning-disadvantaged pupils who have coped, and progressed, in primary school fall quickly behind in secondary school.

One primary headteacher told me that her greatest sadness in education was the knowledge that some of her pupils going into S1 will be struggling by their first Christmas in secondary school. It is difficult not to conclude that our secondary curriculum is organised for the convenience of teachers rather than pupils.

The answer is fewer subjects in S1 and S2, a more integrated approach to learning and more focus on the development of general thinking skills. But a cross-curricular approach to learning is not easy to deliver in secondaries where many teachers are stubbornly entrenched in their subject departments.

Indeed, the present curriculum in our secondary schools is not very different from the curriculum offered during the 19th century. The big difference is that today's sophisticated pupils are very different from their 19th-century counterparts and are no longer willing, or able, to sit passively during what they too often perceive as meaningless lessons.

Some innovative headteachers are, however, devising timetable arrangements to facilitate the collapsing of subject teaching into cross-curricular, theme work. One head recently showed me an excellent unit on "Happiness", which involves elements of personal and social development, health, history, geography, literacy and numeracy, which she wanted to include in the S1 curriculum. But, because it did not fit into the school's existing timetable, she suspended the S1 timetable for three weeks and taught the happiness unit as a three-week block. S1 tutors taught the unit, some of them reluctantly at first; but all concluded that it was a worthwhile addition to the curriculum.

The reduction in content in Scotland's new curriculum is intended to provide teachers with time to introduce new ideas for engaging pupils and for developing links between subjects. But less advice has been offered for tackling the problem of too many subjects on S1-2 timetables.

My own preferred model would be a class of cross-curricular topic work, involving history, geography, modern studies, health, PSD and religious and moral education, taught by tutor-group teachers, along with specialist classes for maths, English, science and PE. Other courses, including IT and modern languages, would be taught by specialist teachers in blocks to give pupils a timetable with no more than six classes in a week, as opposed to the present 14 or more.

It's a bit of a dream - but who knows?

John Greenlees is a secondary teacher.

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