Inter-disciplinary curriculum: why is it so difficult to develop? (part two)

In my previous blog post, I set out some of the reasons why Inter-disciplinary learning (IDL) is advocated in modern curricula, and highlighted some of the problems that have stemmed from this. These include poorly conceptualised policy guidance, and patchy understanding of the nature of inter-disciplinarity, particularly its grounding in disciplinary knowledge. A result of these issues can be poor quality provision that is often difficult to see as inter-disciplinary; more often than not, what we see emerging is multi-disciplinarity with poor connections between discipline-based knowledge, or weakly conceptualised cross-curricular study that does not draw upon more than one discipline. I note here that while there is a general assumption that primaries do IDL, and secondaries do not, this is not necessarily the case. In this second post on this theme, I explore two issues – conceptual development and creating propitious conditions for IDL – both of which are essential if meaningful and coherent inter-disciplinary approaches to curriculum are to become possible. The insights here are equally applicable for primary and secondary education.

Conceptual understanding

At a general level, with wider implications for curriculum making as I have argued elsewhere, practitioners need to develop more expansive concepts of curriculum. This includes, inter alia, viewing curriculum as more than simply content, but instead as the social practices (including pedagogy and assessment) that constitute curriculum making. It involves practitioners taking a holistic view and seeing how their part of the curriculum fits into the whole, to ensure coherence and progression – both vertically across the age range, and horizontally across the breadth of the curriculum.

This, I believe, entails school-level curriculum planning that looks systematically at the content that forms the curriculum. It means shifting from the question of ‘what subjects should we teach?’, instead asking the question ‘what knowledge, skills and attributes are required to become an educated person, capable of thriving in a modern, complex democratic society?’.  As I have argued elsewhere in this blog, this is not a case of simply specifying content; it is instead part of a process of asking what education is for, which should rightly start with consideration of the purposes of education. In the case of Scotland these are set out to some extent in the big ideas – the attributes and capabilities – that form the Four Capacities.

This will probably involve a realisation that the current range of subjects contains (and conceals) considerable gaps in the required knowledge. It requires a shift from seeing subjects as not ends of education, somehow set in stone as was the case in the famous parable of the sabre-tooth curriculum1, but instead viewing them as a means of apportioning curricular content5 (with alternative means available). This means understanding that knowledge is not the same as disciplines, and disciplines are not the same as school subjects.

At an IDL specific level, we need to develop better understandings of concepts that relate to inter-disciplinarity. Part of this lies in the principles that underpin IDL, which might be seen as learning that draws knowledge (substantive/propositional and procedural2) from two or more disciplines in a connected way. Thus, disciplinary knowledge should always be the major foundation of school content, whether the approach is via subjects (based loosely or otherwise on disciplines) or integrated/inter-disciplinary provision.

According to Repko (20073), an inter-disciplinary curriculum should have four key elements:

  • addressing a complex problem or focus question that cannot be resolved by using a single disciplinary approach
  • drawing on insights generated by disciplines, inter-disciplines, or schools of thought, including non-disciplinary knowledge formations
  • integrating insights
  • producing an inter-disciplinary understanding of the problem or question.

It also lies in drawing upon the rich theoretical models that have formed the basis for inter-disciplinary curriculum in other parts of the world. Prominent amongst these is work by James Beane4 and Robin Fogarty5. Fogarty’s work is especially useful for schools seeking to develop a more integrated curriculum, offering a continuum of practice, including:

  • Fragmented – no joint planning or link making between subjects
  • Sequenced – arranging teaching so that related topics are taught concurrently within different subjects (e.g. allowing the study of the First World War in History to coincide with the study of war poetry in English).
  • Shared – joint planning of related disciplines (e.g. identifying commonalities between Science and Geography).
  • Webbed – the use of thematic approaches to bring content from different disciplines together (e.g. an Africa week when all curriculum areas focus on this single theme).
  • Threaded – a cross-curricular approach where big ideas (e.g. citizenship, thinking skills) are coherently planned across the curriculum.
  • Integrated – largely an interdisciplinary organisational approach, which breaks down traditional subject boundaries – either partially (e.g. hybrid subjects) or fully (e.g. the US middle school approach)

And of course, all of the above requires systematic sense making by teachers, not just an articulation of ideas in curricular guidance, which may or may not be read by practitioners.

Cultural/Structural

Enhancing understanding of concepts associated with IDL, amongst those seeking to develop new approaches, is only part of the process, and may actually be a waste of time if such innovation is impeded by formidable barriers. Thus sense making to develop understanding should be accompanied by actions to address the conditions that promote and impede the development of inter-disciplinary curricula. A major issue lies in the ways in which secondary teachers are educated as subject specialists and primary teachers as generalists, as these assumptions constitute a major cultural barrier to IDL. If one accepts the argument, for instance, that IDL is an appropriate approach across the primary/secondary BGE transition phase from P5-S2, then it seems sensible to educate specialist teachers to teach across this phase. This is starting to happen in Scotland, via primary teaching degrees with a specialism, and PGDE/Master’s level programmes that prepare teachers to practice across the primary/secondary transition. More needs to be done here, for example, educating generalists with a subject or domain specialism (e.g. general science, modern languages or social studies) that spans the transition. Such a workforce might help address a lack of specialist teachers in the upper primary years, and an overly fragmented approach in the junior secondary years that currently relies on input from specialists educated in more narrow, discipline-based specialisms. This would of course involve some system-level change, including GTCS accreditation of new ITE routes. Other system level changes might include reconfiguration of qualifications systems to reward the development of IDL; current approaches serve to lock prevailing subject-based provision patterns in place.

Another issue relates to resourcing. Under CfE, there has been a general assumption that schools will make their own curriculum in ways that suit local needs. While I agree in principle with the notion of subsidiarity in curriculum making, this should not mean each school reinventing the wheel in isolation. The predominant approach for CfE has been to provide guidance and exemplification and ask schools to get on with it. That, in my view, is no substitute for national or regional support and resourcing for curriculum making, including curriculum leadership by expert teachers, systematic processes such as professional enquiry and the development of national resources that can be adapted in schools. I note here that the latter approach has a long pedigree in the UK, notably in the work of the Schools Council projects; for example, Schools History Project (including well-established GCSE programmes) is an enduring – and popular – testament to their success.

In summary, curriculum making does not happen in a vacuum. Meaningful IDL requires attention to both conceptual development and the conditions that support emerging practice. This is something that requires thoughtful and systematic leadership and resourcing from the centre as well as school-based curriculum making.

Endnotes

  1. https://users.ugent.be/~mvalcke/OWK_1415/toetsing/thesabertoothcurriculumshor.pdf
  2. Substantive for propositional knowledge refers to knowing that (not simply facts relating to a discipline, to which the content of schooling is often reduced, but also the ways of knowing and ordering that knowledge. Procedural knowledge refers to knowing how.
  3. https://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=googlescholar&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA165912657&sid=googleScholar&asid=4eaedccb. While Repko was writing about Higher Education, his insights are highly applicable for schools.
  4. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XxkBDAAAQBAJ
  5. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/fc84/06745befdf07ad521450d7434df379c72c48.pdf. For more detail, see Fogarty, R. & Pete, B. (2009). How to Integrate the Curricula. Corwin.
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Inter-disciplinary curriculum: why is it so difficult to develop? (part one)

Modern curricula advocate inter-disciplinary learning (IDL) as an alternative form of provision to more traditional subject-based delineation of the curriculum, and Scotland is no exception. This post is the first of two on the subject of IDL, or more specifically on curricular approaches – inter-disciplinary curricula – which might promote and foster IDL. This first piece will examine the current state of play in Scotland, highlighting the advantages claimed for IDL and identifying some of the practical approaches enacted in schools. The second post, which will follow in a few days, will explore what needs to be addressed if IDL is to become a practical reality in Scottish schools.

In Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), IDL is one of four specified contexts for learning. According to Education Scotland, in its 2012 CfE Briefing, ‘interdisciplinary learning, sometimes known as interdisciplinary studies, is a planned approach to learning which uses links across different subjects or disciplines to enhance learning’1. The Briefing goes on to offer two approaches to IDL:

  • ‘learning which is planned to develop awareness and understanding of the connections and differences across subjects or curriculum areas.’
  • ‘learning in different subjects or curriculum areas which is used to explore a theme or an issue, meet a challenge, solve a problem or complete a final project.’2

These definitions have been subject to critique for under-conceptualising what is in fact a hugely complex field of practice.

IDL is said to confer a range of benefits. Its many advocates claim that it allows students to make connections across different domains of knowledge more readily than is the case with more fragmented subject-based approaches to provision, examining complex social issues from multiple disciplinary perspectives. It is said to be more relevant to everyday life of young people, an essential part of education according to James Beane (19973), who stated that curriculum should be general, and helpful for young adolescents exploring self and social meanings. IDL is thus claimed to facilitate connections between everyday and disciplinary knowledge. For example, Dowden (2007) stated that its main purpose is to ‘resituate subject matter into relevant and meaningful contexts’4.

Moreover, IDL is firmly back on the political agenda in Scotland, highlighted by the January 2019 Royal Society of Edinburgh conference Interdisciplinary Learning for Excellence. Moreover, many schools are currently re-engaging systematically with the core purposes of CfE, as part of a national imperative to develop curricular rationales. At such a stage of development, it is important that alternative approaches to provision are considered, and better understanding of IDL is an essential component of this, particularly across the key primary-secondary transition phase from years P6-S2.

Yet despite strong advocacy of IDL in national policy, and in spite of widespread support for its principles, there has been little systematic adoption of such approaches in Scotland. Early experimentation with CfE saw some innovation, much of it fairly dubious, and often driven by a fallacious assumption that the new curriculum was replacing a focus on knowledge with an emphasis on skills acquisition, leading in many cases to IDL that ignored a key component – disciplinary knowledge. Some schools introduced the CfE afternoon (or morning), when stray learning outcomes in the new curriculum could be ‘ticked off’ in one fell swoop5. Other schools experimented with variants of the celebrated (possibly apocryphal) sausage themed week6, a ‘rich task’ activity where all subjects would involve study of content related to a particular theme. Many schools introduced hybrid subjects (e.g. social studies, science) combining traditional discipline based subjects such as history and geography, or biology and physics, in an attempt to defragment secondary curriculum in the Broad General Education (BGE – years S1-3) that may involve contact with 15 -20 teachers in a week.

These attempts to introduce IDL, and the national guidance that prompted them, have tended to be characterised by a lack of conceptual clarity about inter-disciplinary approaches, leading in many cases to activities that were not really inter-disciplinary, at best being cross-curricular. Public discourse around IDL uses many different terms interchangeably – for example, cross-curricular, integrated, thematic – which are conceptually distinctive but regularly conflated. Throughout this process, traditionally configured subjects have continued to dominate curricular thinking in most secondary schools. For example, rich tasks were seen as making connections between subjects, often spurious, while hybrid subjects continued to be seen as combining subjects, rather than as integration of knowledge. For instance, social studies has continued to be widely termed social subjects in Scotland, and integration is rare; more common are approaches where the constituent subjects are kept as separate modules, but taught by a single teacher7. It is not surprising that such innovation has tended to be greeted with scepticism by teachers.

So why have these approaches not worked well – and more important, what might be required to make them work? I suggest that action to promote meaningful inter-disciplinary curricula could be usefully developed by addressing the conditions which shape how schools approach the issue of IDL. These fall into two broad areas: conceptual understanding, and cultural/structural issues, including resourcing. The next post in this series will address these points.

References

    1. https://education.gov.scot/Documents/cfe-briefing-4.pdf
    2. Ibid
    3. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XxkBDAAAQBAJ. Also see this paper by Wall and Leckie – https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1151668.pdf
    4. Cited in Wall & Leckie (2017) – https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1151668.pdf
    5. http://hdl.handle.net/1893/7075
    6. In this example, all subjects related content to sausages. This probably has some relevance in Science (e.g. fat content), but is far more dubious in other subjects (history of sausages, sausages of the world, etc.).
    7. For an example of a Scottish school that has sought to genuinely integrate the social studies, see:  http://hdl.handle.net/1893/15812