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On the Subject of “Subjects”

By Bambi Betts

Would kids learn better and retain more for longer periods if their learning came by way of an interdisciplinary approach? Are schools just stuck in a subject-based teaching model because that’s how we’ve always done things, or is this truly the better paradigm?
This conversation has been going on for well over two decades now, perhaps longer. While dozens of schools have dipped their proverbial toes into the interdisciplinary pool, few have fundamentally revamped their pedagogical approach to organize the curriculum around problems and issues rather than around traditional subjects.
The recent announcement that Finland—a country often in the news for the perennially outstanding performance of its students on the PISA exams—has altogether stopped teaching subjects has catapulted this issue once more onto center stage. That the announcement required further clarification from the Finnish National Board of Education (November 2016)* has not tamped down the conversation in any way but rather underscored once again the need for educators to make some meaningful progress on this very fundamental issue.
Proponents of an interdisciplinary approach to delivering curriculum claim that substantial research already exists that would justify making a complete shift in favor of this model. Accordingly, they advocate that the traditional method of delivering content by subject be replaced by one that privileges themes, issues, and problems as a means of attaining knowledge. Some go as far as suggesting that it may be unethical to continue binding our students to a subject-driven curriculum; after all, this model emerged at a time when we knew very little about how learning best happens. All the evidence we have today from cognitive science, and even neuroscience, clearly indicates that it is time to rethink this long-standing paradigm. Interdisciplinary advocates additionally argue that the division of knowledge into subjects is arbitrary and imposes a static character on something that is clearly fluid and continually evolving.
Supporters of the traditional approach are equally strident about their claims, however. It is hard to refute the fact that millions of students around the world over the course of many decades have learned by way of a discreet subject approach and have made significant use of this learning. Citing such sources as How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking 2002), subject area purists additionally claim that even the learning sciences support the idea that disciplines differ significantly enough in their respective conceptual bases that they compel teachers to employ teaching methodologies specifically tailored to each.
From our extensive contact with the international school community, it would appear that there are few—if any—examples in which an institution has, school-wide, employed an interdisciplinary approach across the K–12 spectrum. Schools having adopted the Primary Year Programme (PYP) or the International Primary Curriculum (IPC), which promote this approach among elementary-aged children, do not necessarily offer a similar platform to their older students. A few have begun “schools within a school” that are experimenting with interdisciplinary curricula at the middle and upper school levels.
Because international schools are, for the most part, so resource-rich (from money to staffing) and enjoy relative independence, all eyes on are them to lead the way. Yet many of those enrolled in international schools express that, while their families are often quite forward-thinking, they are not quite ready to see these institutions lose what for them is a defining feature of that place called “school.” Teachers and leaders similarly struggle to understand what might be their place in a non-subject-delivery learning environment.
An important distinction that has emerged in the course of pursing this conversation is this: a curriculum’s content may be documented according to subject, yet delivered via a trans-disciplinary model. As such, the way a curriculum is written does not dictate the way in which students must experience it.
The subject is subjects… The conversation continues. And the jury? Still out. l
* The new core curriculum for basic education implemented in August 2016 contains changes that may have given rise to a misunderstanding with respect to abolishing separate school subjects. In order to meet the challenges of the future, the focus is on transversal (generic) competences and work across school subjects. Emphasis is placed on collaborative classroom practices, where pupils may work with several teachers simultaneously during periods of phenomenon-based project studies. Pupils should participate each year in at least one such multidisciplinary learning module, which they help to plan.

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