Making the link with modern studies

15th November 1996 at 00:00
All secondary school teachers have a great belief in the specialist nature of their subject. Ironically, modern studies teachers promote the distinctive contribution their subject makes to the curriculum on the basis of its multidisciplinary nature. But valuable links can be made with other subjects, in this case English. The socio-economic and political nature of modern studies is attractive to many pupils who enjoy English. When choosing a text for the review of personal reading many choose a topic which is on a theme linked to what they study in their modern studies Higher.

Similarly in the English discursive essay, without making explicit reference to what is being taught in modern studies, a pupil may, with enormous enthusiasm write an essay on, for example, women's status in society. As to how cross-curricular links can make a difference, this hit me like a bolt from the blue one day. I was trying everything I could to prompt a pupil on the reasons why California remains a magnet for so many Hispanics trying to reach the United States.

I was getting nowhere until I asked the pupil if she had perhaps heard Bruce Springsteen's newly released album "The Ghost of Tom Joad", which focuses on the plight of illegal immigrants chasing the American Dream. (It's great stuff, but not exactly "Dancing in The Dark", as its sales would indicate.) "Bruce who?" she replied. "Oh, Bruce Springsteen, my Dad likes him."

Still nowhere. What did make an impression was when I asked her if she had read John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath in her English class, which Springsteen's album borrows heavily from. "Oh, yeah, good book, but what's that got to do with modern studies?" After that it was plain sailing.

From a skills point of view there are many overlaps between the two subjects. These are most obviously contained in the modern studies decision-making exercise and the English discursive essay. The skills taught in modern studies - planning, evaluation, synthesising information, making recommendations - are relevant to the criteria in English: resourcefulness, a line of thought, personal stance towards a topic, taking account of other points of view.

Establishing cross links allows pupils to transfer skills from one subject to the other. It allows pupils to grasp concepts, ideas and issues. It allows them to specialise in the issues they are most interested in. It heightens the modern studies department's profile in the school. It strengthens the link between modern studies content and the real world. It is recommended good practice in HMI's report on Effective Teaching and Learning.

I discussed with an English teacher what materials pupils could be directed towards and the teaching methods we could use in our classes. We also discussed pupils' individual strengths and weaknesses and how we could come to a common strategy in helping. One example was a pupil who was scoring Cs in modern studies but Bs in English. She was enthusiastic (which in my experience meant we were 99 per cent there) but her answers lacked exemplification. She would happily read and do homework, so we suggested she read Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, for her review of personal reading. She loved the book and we have lent it out to another pupil in a similar situation. The autobiography of Malcolm X had been even more popular.

This year we explained to the pupils clear links between the subjects in both content and skills progression. They like it. They can transfer knowledge gained in English to their Higher modern studies exam. Think how impressed markers will be when pupils quote autobiographies and novels in their answers. If you are a modern studies teacher ask the English department to show you their pupil guides to discursive writing. The similarities with the skills employed in the modern studies are striking.

The link has worked for us. Our numbers are up as a result, and no one, except maybe teachers of history and geography, can complain about that.

John McTaggart, taught modern studies at Stranraer Academy until last month and is currently assistant principal teacher of the subject at Stirling High. A teacher-pupil guide to suggested reading is available from him at Stirling High School, Ogilvie Road, Torbrex, Stirling FK8 2PA (enclose A4 sized SAE). The guide can be supplemented with copies of Higher modern studies exam papers 1 and 2 to reinforce the point to pupils.

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