A new way to go about interdisciplinary learning

Currently, under the traditional education system, the vast majority of a students’ schooling takes place in classes divided by academic discipline:

English, Math, Geography, Science, etc.

And this pattern continues on from ~Grade 3, all the way to university. So, for instance, most management students take the following “core courses”:

Finance, Marketing, Operations, Human Resources, etc.

And then go on to study 1-3 academic disciplines. In one of my previous posts, I described how schools need to show students the meaningful connections between the different things they’re learning in school. Well, our students rarely ever get a chance to make connections between these subjects. It’s as if they’re living double lives, (or rather, 5-9 “lives” at a time)! Each subject is taught in separate classrooms, separate teachers, separate material, and often with different sets of classmates.

So far, there have been good efforts to promote interdisciplinary learning. These efforts are great, and should be promoted in our schools. For instance,

1) Some teachers so try to incorporate material from other disciplines. For instance, when a poli sci prof includes a bit of sociological network theory in 1 or 2 of their social movements lectures. (In particular, the teachers who do this, tend to be the ones who have some autonomy to determine the content they teach, rather than being restricted by government mandates, departmental rules, and the like.)

2) Many schools are trying to help students integrate their learning by introducing multidisciplinary courses, and “integrative/capstone project” courses.

Now don’t get me wrong, I believe these methods are great, and should be promoted. But I just don’t think they go far enough for at least 2 reasons:

1) Often times, a topic which spans over multiple disciplines is explored, but no perspective taking is ever quite achieved. What do I mean by that? Well, picture you and a friend sitting in a room, and one of you holds up a sculpture (by some famous artist) between the two of you. If each of you is asked to describe the sculpture, the two of you will most likely come up with similar but different answers, because each of you is viewing the object from a different perspective. Now, to use the example I brought up earlier, picture political science being one of you, and sociology being the other. Often what happens when a teacher introduces an interdisciplinary topic, they are still viewing it from their disciplines’ perspective. The interdisciplinary learning then becomes relatively superficial in nature.

2) At most, students take 1-2 interdisciplinary courses out of several years of schooling. It’s like learning to professionally sing using karaoke rather than a music coach. They don’t cut to the heart of the matter. To “go further” with interdisciplinary learning, we need to challenge our assumption that students’ learning always has to be organized  by discipline.

MBA Program Cores

Many leading-edge business schools are already starting to approach education from the perspective of issues, rather than disciplines. Take the Yale School of Management, for instance. Their MBA core is structured by “Organizational Perspectives.” Students take courses such as:

Competitor
Customer
Investor
Sourcing and Managing Funds
State and Society
Employee
Innovator
etc.

As Yale describes it,
“Today, managerial careers cross functions, organizations, and industries, as well as cultural and political boundaries. Yale SOM teaches management fundamentals in an integrated way — the way successful managers must function every day. […] This focus on organizational role, instead of disciplinary topic, creates a richer, more relevant context for students to learn the concepts they need to succeed as leaders.”

These courses form a coherent narrative, which is, what our brains are actually looking for. This method of structuring is more realistic, because this is what people normally do. People don’t wake up in the morning and think, “what kind of geography am I going to do today?”, they think, “how am I going to solve this problem of mine?” and then draw from whatever disciplines/schools of thought that are necessary to solve the problem. Of course, some jobs are very specialized, but many others are ones where people have to build bridges between different kinds of information.

But who says that you need to wait 15 years to get to your Master’s level to get this kind of interdisciplinary schooling? And who says that you need to become a management student to do so? My recommendation here is to bring this kind of structuring to more schools, and to more subjects, and to have it trickle down to the undergrad, and high school levels. But remember, this is not to replace traditional disciplines, but to complement them. Students should feel free to pick some courses that are organized around traditional disciplines, and some others that are not.

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Multiple ways of conveying information

Just now, browsing around in this library, I picked up a large book called History: The Definitive Visual Guide, by Dorling Kindersley. It’s an amazing textbook which brings history to life. Captioned pictures, diagrams, maps, and timelines abound in this book. Each double page is a “capsule” which gives an overview of one topic in history (e.g. Cleopatra, the Napoleonic Wars, The Slave Trade, etc.) which the reader can research further if they’re interested.

The value of images

Having lots of pictures in textbooks is currently viewed as a sort of crutch. That it helps to pique students’ interest, but is ultimately a lesser form of knowledge than text. So as one moves up in the educational system, texts become accompanied with less and less pictures, and students become increasingly discouraged (or at the very least, less encouraged) from including pictures in their schoolwork. To the point where many academic papers contain nothing but text at all. As if pictures are to be associated with weakness, immaturity, and childhood.

The same sometimes goes for audio/visual materials as well. They’re seen as lower down on the totem pole to text, in the same sort of mental hierarchical pecking order people give to different disciplines, as Ken Robinson points out in his famous TED talk. (I’ll get to that in a future post!)

But I completely disagree with this notion. Not only are pictures, graphs, flowcharts, maps, and diagrams a motivating factor for visual students such as myself, but they also convey a whole plethora of information. They “complete the picture” (no pun intended!) where text leaves off. They instantly show multiple connections between many concepts where texts struggle to do the same. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words!

Recommendation

Let’s encourage our academic paper writers and textbook editors to include more pictures, flowcharts, and diagrams in their works when they contribute to students’ understanding and mastery of the material.

Study technique for visual learners

On a personal level, here’s a technique I sometimes use to memorize lists of concepts. I draw a simple picture that includes one symbol for each of the items I need to memorize. I make sure to annotate the picture with numbers and arrows connecting each number to its respective symbol on the pic. And during test time, if I’m stuck, I simply redraw the picture. It works like a charm!

4 purposes of history class we can convey to students

After I posted her wonderful TED talk, Adora Svitak responded to my post about future-oriented education. I was very inspired by her response, and the article she wrote and sent me called “Do We Treat History Like a Dead Language?”  So much so, that it spun me into 3 different tangents, which will make up my next 3 posts.

The 2 issues I see with our current version of history class are (1) lack of motivation to learn the subject, and (2) lack of understanding the importance of the subject. One of these issues is to perspective, as the other is to action. As they are very interrelated, often resolving one helps to resolve the other.

In Johnmarshall Reeve’s article, “Teachers as Facilitators: What Autonomy-Supportive Teachers Do and Why Their Students Benefit” one of the things  teachers can do to increase student motivation is to “communicate value and provide rationales.” As he goes on, “when asking students to engage in a requested activity […] autonomy-supportive teachers make a special effort to identify and explain the use, value, importance, or otherwise hidden personal utility within the undertaking […] then students understand why they are being asked to invest their attention and effort in a requested activity.”

Anyways, the key here for teachers and textbook writers is to identify the purposes of history education, and then convey those purposes to the students as best they can. This conveying can be both explicit (e.g. make a poster out of this and post it on your chalkboard!) and implicit (e.g. embedded in the lessons.)

Note: Notice both how this quote, and this sentence bridge students’ perspectives and actions. Indeed, wonderful things can happen when one’s attitudes and actions are in alignment.

So what then are the purposes of history class? There are many, but here are 4 major ones that I’ve come up with that can be a guiding force behind all of the lessons:

1. History as a way to collect, record and remember our past.

It is important for humanity to keep recording its past, to preserve it, for continuity’s sake. But this purpose is already well-covered in history classes. My recommendation here is not to eliminate this emphasis, but to reduce it to give way to the other 3…

2. History as a way to answer questions, to better understand ourselves.

I think that a great way to approach some lessons would be to start off with a question, rather than an answer. e.g. When did we decide to live in houses, usually family by family? Who decided to place the leap day on February 29, and who name it February, and after whom? Why did it take so long for the Olympics to come back? Why are the keys on the keyboard arranged that way? etc. Students can supply some of the questions (I hear they’re good at that kind of thing!), and teachers can provide students with questions, in order to keep the class focused on a particular theme.

This is what history is great at: at helping us figure out why we came to be the way we are now. Why we’ve decided to set up our society and institutions in such a fashion. And pursuing these answers can often be more exciting than just receiving facts.

3. History as storytelling.

History is full of stories: life stories of a historical figures, events that lead to other events, and stories of civilizations as they rose and fell. Why not present it as such? The important thing here is to string facts and details together to form narratives. These narratives can be compelling for students read and listen to.

4. History as teaching lessons, as showing linkages between actions and consequences.

One way to prevent this from being cliche is to present the “lessons” in a non-perscriptivist manner. For instance, instead of saying, “Rome fell because they couldn’t manage their money properly, so when you lead groups in the future, remember the bottom line,” you can have students fill out a worksheet with the following questions:
– Why did such-and-such happen?
– How did people react to it?
– What happened as a result of it?
– How could they have reacted differently? What could’ve ended up happening?
– What can we learn from this?
– What are instances in which you can apply this to your life (past, present, or future)?

Conclusion

Reeve says that we need to identify students’ needs, interests, and preferences and create classroom opportunities for students to have these internal states guide their behaviour. Here, I’ve identified 4 principles that relate well to our needs as humans. Hopefully, once teachers convey them to students, students can get excited about learning history, and to see it as a “present, living reality,” as Svitak would say.

A recipe for a future-oriented curriculum

It’s often said in graduation speeches that “education is the future.” But most of our schooling is based on the past. We read books that were written in the past, discoveries that were made in the past, quotes people said in the past, and so forth. Much of what students do is simply reproducing the culture of the past. The present and the future are still largely neglected, if not completely ignored at the moment.

I think that schooling should show more of a balance between the past, the present, and the future. We should move the notion that “education is the future” from cliché, to reality, as much as we can.

But don’t get me wrong, I think it is also extremely important that students learn about the foundation of knowledge that the humanity before them has laid out for them. So, overall, the majority of the time spent should focus on the past. So if (hypothetically), the percentages are at: 80% past, 15% present, 5% future, we should try to shift it to something like 55% past, 20% present, 25% future.

So while I’ll cover “the present” in a future post (perhaps there are puns intended…), here’s my Recipe for a Future-Oriented Curriculum which can be applied to mostly any subject:

The future of society: Write papers envisioning what they think the future of our society will be like, or what they hope the future will be like. (Focusing on 1 aspect of it, the topic will vary from course to course.)

Future leaders of society: Read and talk about leaders in the world today who have a long-term vision, and are trying to bring about that vision on a practical level

Their future role in society: Write, or talk about how they see themselves being a part of / contributing to this future society. Have them ask themselves, “Am I going to be a part of the problem, or a part of the solution? And how can I remind myself of these commitments in the future?” –> Hopefully, this can contribute to their moral foundation that can guide them later on in life. We see all too often examples of fully grown adults who have clearly forgotten what they learned in kindergarten!

The future of their personal lives: Have students write about their personal life will be like, to set long term goals for themselves. Ok, so I remember in Grade 8, we actually did something like this. We set short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. And this is great. But, as with much of what we did in school, there was never any follow up with our goals. My suggestion here is to have students hold on to these plans (or have the teacher hold on to them), and to bring them out twice a year to have student check-up on how they’re doing. To add a sense of continuity to the exercise.

The future of a body of knowledge: For science, social studies, and other classes, have students try to come up with their own theories, or new insights they can add to the material they’re learning. It can either be a theoretical insight, or an applied one e.g. In biology class, a student can ask what allows plants to stay upright and grow, or how the emotions of animals differs from the emotions of humans (ok, ok, that was something I asked in biology class!) But instead of having it be a passing thought, allow the class to incorporate the student’s suggestions and interests and discoveries.

Not only will implementing this be a virtue in and of itself, but having a future-oriented curriculum, I believe, would actually be very intrinsically motivating for students. Knowing how what they’re learning is going to affect their future gives students an extra sense of purpose and meaning in school.

 

Learning and producing knowledge generally go in that order, but it’s not absolutely necessary that they do. They can also go hand in hand, you know…

The way our system is set up, it is assumed that students have to keep acquiring knowledge until they reach graduate school at around age 22. For two reasons. 1) It’s assumed that only then are they mature enough to start producing new knowledge and have the rest of the world take them seriously. And while I agree that maturity is a factor that shouldn’t be ignored, children and teens offer something special: extra doses creativity and passion. A lot about making a new discovery requires creativity, and children are full of it. Why don’t we leverage that?

2) Our traditional educational model assumes that you need to learn everything that has been researched in an academic field before being able to contribute to it. But I disagree with this notion. I believe students have the capability to come up with insights, knowledge, and new questions to be explored as they spend years exploring the material. Okay, so students at a young age might have all of the experience necessary to write a lit review for their paper, but this is where teachers can help them out. To work with the student, rather than lecture at him or her.

For instance, even in the second year a student learns biology, they are capable of coming up with new hypotheses to be tested. If a student comes up with something novel, their teacher could help explore that topic, by providing them with whatever resources they need, and by offering them with advice. The student should feel free to take a break from their usual schedule of learning, to go into further depth on their topic of choice, on occasion, to conduct real research to a real audience, and then to return to whatever else they were “supposed” to be learning at that time.

This is all about sending the right messages to kids. At the moment, we send the message that society won’t listen to them, and doesn’t really care about that they think until they become an adult. I think it’d great if we started sending them different messages.

PS: If you’re interested in this last topic I brought up, check out this wonderful related TED talk by Adora Svitak:

Consistency or brilliance?

It’s pretty much a given that schools are the best at measuring a student’s level of consistency… consistently attending class, consistently doing homework, and consistently submitting papers. Each day has the same # of classes (until high school graduation), each class is the same length of time, every class is consistently graded out of 100%. You get the picture.

But what about brilliance? While consistency seems to be very well taken care of, brilliance has yet to be adequately valued in the system. Strokes of brilliance don’t come often, but when they do, they can be meaningful, memorable, and worthwhile experiences. They can even change a student’s life.

I’d like to see the value of brilliance (as well as consistency, in some senses of the matter) be infused into the organizational culture of our schools. We need to show students how they, too, can have moments of brilliance, moments of Flow, and profound moments of discovery that they can remember forever.

Getting into the Flow at PS22

PS22 is an elementary school in Staten Island, New York which has reached superstar status for its school chorus program. No, it’s not a special private school or art school, but what it does have that’s special is one of its music teachers, Gregg Breinberg. Gregg turned the school around with his unique style of engaging his students. His class went viral on YouTube, has been visited by many celebrity pop artists, and is inspiring audiences everywhere. The school’s principal says that not a single student in the choir has ever gone to summer school. So this seems to suggest that this choir is helping their academic life as well.

But what makes Breinberg’s teaching style so unique? Well, one thing that he does well is that he encourages his students to “get in the moment” when they sing. While he also teaches and expects high levels of technical quality from his students (which is also important), Breinberg wants his students to feel the music, rather than just sing it.

Introducing Flow

A psychologist by the name of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi proposed a concept known as flow. He has performed many studies and has written many books about the subject. Flow is “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter” (Csikszentmihalyi,1990). Flow has shown to provide many benefits, including improved performance “in a wide variety of areas including teaching, learning, athletics and artistic creativity.” (Click here to read a bit more about Flow, and get the ball rolling, if you’re interested.)

I believe that Mr. B. is turning music class into a flow experience for the kids, and that’s what’s motivating them and giving them a sense of meaning in school.

Can this translate elsewhere?

Flow theory would says that any activity has the capacity to become a flow experience. I would say that, under this premise, every school subject has the potential to be flow experience for students.

And these is just the kind of educational experiences that kids are “begging” for, whether they describe it this way or not. Currently, students are tired of the regular classroom environment, which is all too often often, uninspiring, and harsh in tone. Lectures are often monotone and stiff, leaving the students bored and restless. Sometimes, the teacher herself is visibly uninspired by the material! But I believe that learning and discovering at its core is anything but boring, uninspiring, and stiff, and like Mr. B is doing, we ought to show that to students.

Now granted, for certain topics, it’s acceptable to deliver them with less of an emotional “punch.” Like with math, for instance. And not everything needs to sweep students up into euphoria; not every class can realistically be a flow experience for every student.

But even with a topic like math, the teacher can spend a bit of time describing the value that mathematical concepts can add to the students’ lives and to our society. The important thing here is to convey why the lessons you’re teaching are valuable and meaningful. And that’s one thing that can motivate students to stay in school, to care about, and to get excited about learning.

Recommendation: Multiple Perspective Teaching

Sometimes, students remark that one of their teachers is too one-sided. That:

– their lectures all end up supporting one side of an issue,

– class discussion is only welcoming to certain viewpoints, and

– students who agree with the teacher are graded more favourably than those who don’t

But regardless of whether this is the case or not – and thankfully, it’s not… most teachers do try their best at lecturing and grading objectively – there is a lot of potential in having 2 teachers, rather than 1, in the class at the same time. For instance, teachers can play off each other, their ideas can grow and develop. Have you been to a luncheon which mainly consisted of teachers? It’s amazing to see what kind of intellectual discussions can ensue. Seeing teachers discuss topics at hand with other “experts” really gets them going.

So that’s my general recommendation here: have some classes be team taught by 2 teachers. This is actually very commonplace in the world of facilitation, where it’s known as co-facilitation. But for education, we need to break down the assumption that “there can only be 1 teacher in the classroom at any time.”

Recommendation 1: The Debate Method

One way we can do this is if we put 2 teachers with very different views to teach the course together. For instance, if this

was a class about abortion, then you would have one very pro-choice teacher, and one very

pro-life teacher. During the lectures, they would go back and forth, playing off each other, and providing points and counter-points. Of course, they wouldn’t be debating all the time. Let’s say about 30%. The rest of the time, they would be working together to present the material, theories, case studies, and so forth. And of course, they can show how each side of the debate actually agrees on some fundamental assumptions. It’s just having these multiple perspectives that would be refreshing for the teachers and the students.

Recommendation 2: The Multidisciplinary Method

For this idea, instead of having teachers with different points of view, why don’t we have teachers with different intellectual backgrounds teach together? The course would cover one theme, but from 2 different disciplines.

For instance, a course about social media can have 1 teacher with a background in sociology / symbolic interactionism, and another with a background in computer programming / website design. The material can weave in and out of the theories, and make connections between their research.

 

Note: Currently, there are a few courses (at the university level only) where there are multiple teachers for the same sections. But usually they are never in the classroom at the same time. Usually, 1 teacher teaches for the first half of the semester, then the other takes the other half. And often, they teach about 2 different aspects of the material, and don’t often “cross over.” This is interesting is its own right, but it’s not the same as what I’m recommending here.