Disciplinary learning – straightjacket or cornerstone?

 In my last post  I was reflecting upon what Professor Lindsay Paterson had to say about the importance of disciplinary learning.

A Curriculum for Excellence sets out the place of Disciplinary (subject learning) within the curriculum:

It defines the scope of the curriculum as extending beyond subjects to include:

  • the ethos and life of the school as a community
  • curriculum areas and subjects
  • interdisciplinary projects and studies
  • opportunities for wider achievement.

 It goes onto state:

Because the curriculum is much more than the sum of individual curriculum areas, this material is the first of a series. To support planning for the curriculum as a whole we will be producing further Building the Curriculum papers which will include cross-cutting themes including literacy and numeracy, and interdisciplinary studies and projects.

The dominant structure in Scottish secondary education is the notion of the curriculum as curriculum areas and subjects. Within ACfE these are:  

Each curricular area or subject will then reflect identify the experiences and outcomes in relation to particular content e.g. in science, within the unit relating to Planet Earth where experiences and outcomes have been identified for Biodiversity as illustrative exemplars.

The challenge for schools is going to be whether or not they step beyond the accepted way of delivering the curriculum in units of study dedicated to each of the curricular areas (subjects) e.g. 3 periods of Social Studies; 5 periods of Maths, 2 periods of Expressive Arts, etc.

There are those who fear that we water down these areas into experiences which are taught by non-specialists in an inter-disciplinary manner which do not require the services of a specialist teacher in that subject area.

The difference between secondary schools and primary schools is that the Scottish secondary system has specialist subject teachers – usually only qualified to teach in one curricular area – who have typically undergone a degree in that discipline and also undergone a one post graduate certificate/diploma in teaching. That unique resource becomes both a strength and weakness of any system which seeks to explore the notion of inter-disciplinary work – who will do it?; does it make the most of our specialist teachers?; will inter-disciplinary work undermine the outcomes in disciplinary work?; how will we fit inter-disciplinary work into the curriculum without it taking time away from disciplinary work?

The more I think about this, the more I am attracted to the idea of the early years in secondary school being taught by teams of teachers – as was suggested by most of the Depute Head Teacher Groups at their recent conference. Such a team of teachers could still deliver their own specialisms but work together to create a learning environment which enabled the learners to see and create the links between the subjects.

In my next post I’ll consider some of the recent neuro-scientific research into the brain and the learning process, with a view to trying to understand how the brain sees all disciplines in an inter-disciplinary manner.

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