That's a nice story, but I have heard it before

31st May 2013 at 01:00
Let's reflect that there are two sides to the old tale about interdisciplinary learning and teaching

Many readers may recall the Primary Memorandum, or at least know the legend. It was a bold move giving teachers increased autonomy and opening up the curriculum to enable creative teaching and better, more authentic links across the curriculum. Once opened, the floodgates allowed schools to be swamped with cross-curricular and thematic planning approaches, all designed for children to be more engaged with their learning and for the relationship between learners and learning to be much more creative than ever before.

Sound familiar? Yes there is more than a whiff of Curriculum for Excellence about these changes that took place almost 50 years ago. And yes, it's a good thing that such ideals and principles have been unearthed and polished up for the new millennium. In every primary school now you hear the following buzzwords: interdisciplinary learning, interdisciplinary planning, interdisciplinary approaches. But what does it all mean? And how far have we come in the past 50 years?

Once upon a time, there were thematic planners, envelope planners, multi-subject planners and other proformas designed to encourage the (often reluctant) teacher to make more explicit links between different curricular areas. Teachers were led to develop plans that got away from the single-subject, curriculum-specific lessons and topics. Instead, they were advised to start with a grand idea and to use it to engage students in the business of learning. Then they would be encouraged to "cash in" on the potential for learning from this particular topic. For example, a project on the Romans would tick the boxes for history and geography, but what about any potential art work? What about maths, science and religion, too?

A project could take on a life of its own. It could go on for weeks - almost as long as the Roman Empire itself - and any focus on the learning might well be left behind as each curricular area was covered and ticked off with barely any regard for quality, depth or progression. No one dared to say that links to some curricular areas were contrived, but often the connection between the subject area and the topic theme were particularly tenuous.

Critics complained that such topics were contrived, superficial and overly laden with so many links to curricular areas that students learned very little that was useful. Critics argued that there should be more subject-specific content with more of a focus on the learning, and that there needed to be a clearer sense of continuity and progression in the learning.

Once upon a time, something called 5-14 was introduced... And these gods were worshipped over and above those thematic approaches of old. Continuity, progression, cohesion and depth replaced such superficial approaches and all was well - with the government. But many teachers strained against this restrictive regime. They cried out that it was all too prescriptive, that it questioned their professional integrity. Others revelled in the challenge of taking the curriculum and using it as a means of honing their thematic approaches. After all, if you could prove that 5-14 could justify your "fabby idea for a project" you were home and dry. Creativity still thrived, in some places at least.

Once upon a time, there was something called Curriculum for Excellence. It purported to get away from restrictive and prescriptive curriculum guidelines. Instead, it said that teachers should be more creative. They should take their lead from the teachers in the nursery school, where learning was much more authentic and responsive to children' needs and interests. It said that students should have much more ownership of the learning. One element of this was something called interdisciplinary learning.

The trouble was that nobody was sure what the words actually meant. Older teachers scratched their heads and remembered the envelope planning - where you wrote the project title in the middle and were then allowed to contrive links to every other curricular area roundabout this title until a pretty pattern was made, neatly ticking off all curricular obligations in one fell swoop.

Younger teachers asked questions such as: "What is the difference between interdisciplinary learning and other terms like cross-curricular, thematic, topic and multi-disciplinary planning?"

Many teachers are still asking the same questions. Interdisciplinary learning surely is something to do with the relationship between one discipline and another. How can you develop such relationships if you try to cram in too many disciplines? For it to be truly interdisciplinary, surely it can only focus on two or three curricular areas?

For example, I recently witnessed an excellent example of interdisciplinary learning in a local primary school. The children were doing a topic on the Egyptians. They were learning about mummies. In order to do this, they were learning how to use sentence openers to structure a report. The activity was all about watching a short video clip before sequencing paragraphs and pictures about the process of mummification. The learning was about literacy, but also social studies. Learning in one area supported and enhanced the learning in the other. Learning in each element was recognisable and assessable. Nothing was contrived and there was no attempt to overplay the learning opportunity. This lesson formed part of a topic which had its focus on selected outcomes from literacy and social studies. Yes, there were millions of other opportunities that could have been included, but these would only have served to water things down and dilute the focused learning.

For true interdisciplinary learning, less is more. A far, far cry from those once-upon-a-time days.

Peter Tarrant is a teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh, a former primary headteacher and author of Reflective Practice (SAGE).

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