The Butterfly Effect: The effect of a very small change in the initial conditions of a system which makes a significant difference to the outcome (Sir Tim Brighouse)
I love the word ‘Synergy’, my cousin ‘persuaded’ me to form a pop group when we were 12 and we called it ‘Synergy’, it reminds me of bopping around, singing into a hairbrush to Jason Donovan songs….sadly the pop career never made it any further than my bedroom, though the meaning behind the concept is something that has always stuck with me in education. Team Synergy comes from the capacity to work with and share with others at a deep level and on a continuous basis. I’m a historian by trade though have taught a range of subjects, English, Geography and Sociology to name a few and this experience has taught me that whole school curriculum coherence is needed in order for students to experience meaningful connections between their learning in History and their other learning experiences.
I prefer the term ‘inter-disciplinary’ to ‘cross curricular’ learning. Emphasising ‘discipline’ makes the process more rigourous, the phrase ‘cross curricular’ makes me think of watered down generic ‘thinking skills’ days I’ve been involved in over the years. Things that look nice, keep the students occupied but don’t really have any depth or academic substance to them.
Meaningful links can certainly be made between subjects, though this should be based on more than just content or loose ‘skills’. I want students to be able to make useful conceptual connections between subjects and recognise how they converge/diverge in an intelligent, inter-disciplinary way. Smart projects led by subject specialists are better, people who are rooted in their own subject’s ‘ways of knowing’ could work together to improve the thinking of students in more powerful ways than the emptiness of a general ‘thinking skills’ approach. The implication being that the teaching must also remain true to the subjects involved, to explore how the conceptual knowledge that underpins these can be integrated in ways that will enrich the experience of both for the students without losing their distinctiveness.
Recently I was on interview and taught two mini lessons, one in English, one History. I was asked to teach about a news event for English and an introduction to Communism in History. It struck me that I could have approached either lesson from the perspective of either discipline. For example studying Communism within History and looking at it through the lens of a historian would look different from studying it in English, through the medium of ‘Animal Farm’ for example. Asking different questions of the same material is likely to benefit and enrich both subjects.
This new renewed interest in inter disciplinary learning has come from an email I received last week with my timetable for next academic year attached. 15 years down the line, I still get a buzz from new beginnings and the anticipation of the forthcoming, made all the more exciting as I move to a new school this August and will be teaching History/English. This will of course be an ideal opportunity for me to explore inter-disciplinary links between these two curriculum areas, further afield with other subjects and hopefully utilise and find out about, the already great practice I know goes on at this school.
Possible initial thoughts/things I would like to try:
Subjects: History/ English/ Science/Computing : Content: (World War Two) Concepts: (Evidence, meaning and the nature of proof).
Students to investigate the scene of an abandoned wartime house at the time of the Blitz. Aim to find out what happened to the family that used to live there by interpreting all the available evidence. To what degree does the evidence support a particular conclusion? To what degree is the evidence reliable?
Subjects: History/English/Music: Content:( Slavery) Concepts: (Inference, interpretation, analysis).
Students analyse slave spirituals to infer meaning. They then reconsider meaning in light of information regarding the Underground Railroad. Could be linked to the play ‘Mean to be Free’ (Kraus).
Subjects: History/English: Content: (19th Century) Concepts: Reading/writing literature (how is setting/character created?how is language used to create an authentic sense of period?what makes a good historical story?).
Dual approach to teaching historical fiction (Dickens?)
Subjects: History/English/Science/Computing: Content: How ‘dark’ were the Dark ages? (Middle East-How do ideas travel?What do we owe to Islamic Science?) Concepts: (Enquiry, investigation).
Investigating sources, replicating/devising experiments to test and understand Islamic science and scientific method.
Success with inter-disciplinary work hinges on clarity about the aims, thorough planning, preparation and effective evaluation. Plan together, it’s tempting when you’re a bit domineering to present your ideas complete to somebody else and also this is a way of protecting your own subject’s priorities, though this might not complement the needs and interests of the other subjects. Equally there is little point running a project unless it helps students get better at the subject areas and so needs to be valuable and enrich all.
Share, share, share
Make your own S.O.W transparent and accessible to other departments. Read the programmes of study for other subjects; give time to meaningful conversations between departments to identify the commonalities/ differences between subjects. Hold a ‘speed dating’ activity for departments. Draw up a grid and allow each department ten minutes to compare subject requirements and look for possible joint activities with every other department. Obviously further planning is required but this kind of brainstorming could generate sufficient interest and enthusiasm to sustain the more detailed work needed to realize some of the ideas.
Exciting times with the abandonment of levels and the potential for changes to the ways we assess our students. Assessing learning in one subject is tricky enough, more than one is a challenge..to help facilitate this we need to consider certain questions, what outcome are we expecting? How will these manifest? What are the success criteria for each subject and the project as a whole? What form of feedback will you give? Who will give the feedback? Will you have a single set of assessment criteria, or discrete criteria for each subject?How can assessment be done in a meaningful way?
Clearly evaluation of the process is crucial to the ongoing success of inter-disciplinary learning at your school. It is essential to review it from a range of perspectives and answer the question whether the learning experience for the students has genuinely been enhanced by using a collaborative approach?. I think the concept of lesson study could work well here too if triads were formed between key staff in each of the subject disciplines, trialling, observing and evaluating such work as it happens.