The view from Down Under

1st May 2009 at 01:00
Interdisciplinary learning will only work if teachers have deep knowledge and the lessons have intellectual quality, says expert

The Australian experience of curriculum reforms shows that it is difficult to get teachers to work with other departments on interdisciplinary tasks in an existing school.

It is often better to set up a new school and create new teams of teachers from the start, advocates James Ladwig, an expert on American and Australian school reform, based at Newcastle University in New South Wales. "The most successful schools were not restructured schools, but those which had been closed and reopened," he said.

His analysis of cross-curricular working in New South Wales was that when it was done well, schools got very good results. "But it is not being done well that often," he told The TESS at a conference on interdisciplinary learning organised by the Tapestry Partnership in Glasgow last week. Too often, such projects were done "superficially, for show" and did not deliver deep learning.

David Cameron, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, who chaired the conference, delivered a similar warning for Scotland: "We rally round banners like Assessment is For Learning, co- operative learning, and rich tasks and they become the posh words and the cliches. A lot of people are coming up with big tasks and things that are engaging, but they are not always rich tasks, because they've not always provided learning and progress. They have created interest, not driven up standards and engaged kids - they are not deep learning."

Professor Ladwig said part of the problem in his home state was that it had not adopted the interdisciplinary approach officially; the state government had sent out materials and encouraged schools to experiment. However, teachers were sceptical and felt the education system would get rid of the approach.

Interdisciplinary tasks would fail if people didn't do them seriously by bringing together their knowledge and translating it into the classroom. But they would also fail if they were done "superficially, for show" - and there was "a great history of that happening in schools", he warned.

His work on the "quality teaching framework" is based on the intellectual quality of the teaching, the quality of the learning environment and the significance of the teaching pupils receive. After studying some 3,000 students on the QT programme over three years, he concluded that "most classrooms are fundamentally shallow and boring". But all children, even those from indigenous or poor socio-economic backgrounds, raised their attainment significantly when the intellectual quality of what they were taught was improved - and if they learned in an interdisciplinary way, the improvement was greater.

Teachers needed time to reorganise and design their lessons before they gave them to students - and they needed support along the way when delivering them.

It was also "a done debate" that teachers couldn't do interdisciplinary work if they didn't have deep disciplinary knowledge, he said.

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