Primary school. One teacher. Many subjects.
Secondary school. Many teachers. Many subjects.
In primary school, it may be natural to integrate different subjects. Trans-disciplinary learning is common. You find a theme, say, recycling, that students are interested in, and tie in as many subject outcomes as you can. Maybe you count items of rubbish and recycling and create graphs in maths. Maybe you explore materials and changes in material properties in science while looking at plastics and paper recycling. In art, maybe you create a piece of expressive art telling the story of sustainability from recycled pieces of rubbish like bottle caps or coffee pods. In global studies, you might explore globalism, waste, sustainability and how humans interact and use the Earth’s resources. In english you might write a persuasive piece about how we should recycle. You might even sing a song about recycling in music.
It’s interesting, relevant, allows in-depth inquiry into a topic, follows student interests, and could be different every year.
Then students get to high school.
They move every 45 mins or so, to different subjects, with different teachers, doing different things, where there’s not enough time to dive deep, and learning is disjointed and not inter-connected. Students work in micro-ways on micro-projects within individual subjects. No wonder we see students looking stressed and disengaged.
So how can we capture in-depth inquiry over longer time spans, with solid blocks of time, connections between subject areas, in authentic, student driven ways while having many teachers scheduled on timetabled lines allocated to specialist subjects?
Integrating in the secondary school setting can seem almost impossible to logistically organise.
I’ve seen three main options in middle school to build inter-disciplinary learning.
Mimic a primary model
Collaborate like pros
Revolutionise the curriculum
One: Mimic a primary model
One way to enable more integration in middle school, is to mimic the primary model. Using a key teacher strategy, you reduce the number of teachers that teach a class. For example, there might be one teacher that teaches a class of students for maths, science and PE. This enables that one teacher to get to know the students deeply, to form natural links between the subjects they are teaching, and to use the timetabled time more flexibly as it would block together in larger chunks of time. This often takes a multi-disciplinary style, as teachers refer to and make links between what they are covering in the separate subjects.
Two: Collaborate like pros
You may not be able to change the timetable or the staffing in your school. Or maybe you have a great key teacher model (option one) but want to integrate beyond the 2-3 subjects you teach. You need to be able to collaborate like pros. Teams of people teaching the same students different subjects work together to pick overarching themes, map curriculum outcomes, plan teaching sequences so they complement each other, and design common expo products as a culmination and display of student combined learning.
Three: Revolutionise the curriculum
Is it not enough? Do you want more? Are you looking for even greater choice, agency, relevance and student-directed learning? A third way tends to ignore the curriculum outcomes, in favour of fully student-directed projects. Is a student disengaged in traditional school but really passionate about marine biology? Then throw out traditional subjects, timetables, and classrooms and allow the student to work on their own inquiry project that they are passionate about. These rich projects sound so inspirational as you read about students following their interests, engaging with experts, doing research, collecting data, and communicating their findings in authentic ways. However, some coverage of curriculum content naturally gets lost to make space for depth and particular interests.
Can you have it all?
Never trust anyone who says you can have it all – something always has to slide to make way.
However, there may be a nice middle ground between traditional high school structures and the completely revolutionised school.
Taking a little of one, two and three and piecing them together gives us a model like this, for building both disciplinary and inter-disciplinary knowledge as part of a contemporary curriculum:
The mosaic model
- Have as few teachers as possible for a class of students in the middle school.
- Allow them chunks of time, both at the start of terms and throughout the year, to collaborate and plan together. Start with all the curriculum outcomes you want to cover. It’s easy if you print them out, laminate, and use a giant wall or pinboard to map them. Pick a big overarching theme or driving question that interests the students e.g. could we live on Mars? Map what curriculum outcomes you can find to match that theme. Then think about and plan what combined product you would want to see at the end to show student achievement (backwards design). Fill in tasks, skill builders, content builders and other lesson building blocks needed to go from the theme setter at the start, to the culminating product at the end. Make sure each subject has a logical sequential order and times complementary components so they fit together.
- Mapping curriculum in an integrated way should save some time overall if you’re not double teaching some topics (like biomes in HASS and ecosystems in Science) or skills (e.g. practice writing procedures in english by drafting practical reports from science). Use this time to carve out a personal deep inquiry. Students pick something they are interested in, and use the time to deeply explore, research, talk to experts, experiment, collect data, create and report in what could be a capstone project over the whole year.
Of course, there is still the question of why we would change structures and re-organise curriculum? Shouldn’t students just get used-to the secondary model that has worked for so long? Gone are the days of one-room school houses. Why should we even bother with an integrated curriculum when students need to have a strong content knowledge in each discipline as laid out in the required curriculum standards? It’s much easier to keep the timetabling and staffing as it is in secondary.
There are a few reasons why integrating throughout high school is important.
- Life isn’t in silos – why should learning be? Separating knowledge and skills into components is convenient, but not necessarily reflective of real life. Even within the sciences, we separate into Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Physics, Nutrition – but there is so much overlap and cross-over that the distinctions are more for our ease than real. Integrating allows students to see the connections that exist between subject areas and create the ‘big picture’.
- Breakthroughs occur at the edges, between disciplines. It is where two areas meet and come together that we get really interesting solutions to world problems. Thinking outside one domain area and transferring that knowledge is an important skill. For example, a local SA company, Life Whisperer, took the knowledge from biological and medical fields around IVF and combined it with another field, AI technology to create an AI, cloud based solution to imaging and making clinical decisions around which embryos are viable.
- The sum is greater than the parts – there is a synergy that occurs when subjects are integrated. The best example I’ve heard was a task which involved students writing a science magazine article to explain one aspect of their course. When teamed up with an English teacher/class, the article became so well written that students scored, on average, a whole grade band higher than the year without integration. There are so many cross-over skills that one subject can greatly benefit another, especially when it means more time can be spent developing a few quality products over multiple subjects.
- It can lead to greater depth and understanding of multiple perspectives. Take a global issue – say world war two or global warming. Having experts from different areas to discuss the impact- scientific, historical, geographical, media and poetry and writing of the time, politics, mathematical developments, business etc allows for a broader understanding of all perspectives.