A radically reformed approach to education, in which different subjects teach connected themes, like climate change or food security, is being proposed by researchers, who argue that it would better prepare children for future crises.
In a newly-published study, education researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh argue that there is a compelling case for a drastic shake-up of the school curriculum, so that subjects are no longer taught independently of one another. Instead, they argue that the arts and sciences should teach together around real-world problems, and in a manner rooted in pupils’ lived experiences.
The model draws inspiration from Renaissance polymaths like Leonardo Da Vinci, who worked across disciplinary boundaries in pursuit of deeper knowledge. Similar, transdisciplinary approaches are already used in well-regarded education systems such as Finland’s. The idea also echoes recent calls by the youth campaign, Teach the Future, to break down subject silos to teach climate change.
In the journal Curriculum Perspectives, the academic paper also presents evidence from two recent projects in which pupils appeared to benefit from an approach to teaching that blurred subject boundaries.
One, which invited South African teenagers from disadvantaged settings to create ‘math-artworks’, produced evidence that as well as increasing their familiarity with key mathematical principles, the project also enabled pupils to understand more about the relevance of maths in their own lives. In the second case study, primary school children in Aberdeen showed a deeper understanding of food security and environmental protection issues after learning to grow food on their school grounds.
Pam Burnard, professor of arts, creativities, and education at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘If we look at the amazing designs that Da Vinci produced, it’s clear he was combining different disciplines to advance knowledge and solve problems. We need to encourage children to think similarly because tomorrow’s adults will have to problem-solve differently due to the existential crises they will face: especially those of climate, sustainability, and the precarity of life on Earth.’
Dr Laura Colucci-Gray, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Education and Sport, said: ‘The nature of these problems calls for a radically different approach to knowledge. We are proposing a move from the idea of a curriculum as something children are just ‘given’ to a curriculum ‘in-the-making, in response to transformations that will define their lives.’
The paper contributes to an emerging field called STEAM education. This seeks to reinsert the ‘A’ of arts into national attempts to encourage the uptake of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), in response to a critical skills gap in related areas of the economy.
Some educationists argue that the emphasis on STEM is devaluing other subjects and that arts disciplines are also powerful tools for delivering the problem-solving skills society needs. ‘For education to reflect that requires a major shift away from linear conceptions where subjects are taught separately, and towards a situation where they are inseparable,’ Burnard said.
In their alternative model, the researchers suggest giving schools greater freedom to determine how to meet general study targets set by the curriculum. Teachers and leadership teams would make collective decisions and share practices about how to engage pupils with unifying, cross-curricular themes, such as environmental sustainability. They add that this might also involve the imaginative use of space and resources, and closer links between schools and their communities to connect learning to pupils’ lived experiences beyond the classroom.
Evidence is also emerging that a transdisciplinary approach enhances pupils’ acquisition of key skills. In the math-artwork project cited in the study, students in South Africa were asked to create art that showed the links between maths and their world. Subsequent analysis of the 113 submissions showed that pupils had applied principles such as measurement, ratio and proportion, and geometry in their creations.
However, the researchers also found that participants had engaged deeply with the meaning of maths at a level rarely seen in conventional lessons. One especially powerful example, by a 16-year-old male student, was entitled The Stressed Vitruvian Man, inspired by Da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man. Like Da Vinci, the young artist’s work was partly a study of the proportions of the human body, but at the same time, the student used it to comment on both the potential, and dangers, of creating a society built on mathematical principles alone.
Similarly, the primary school pupils in Aberdeen showed a deepened understanding of issues like food production and natural resource management when they were allowed to take responsibility for a small piece of land in their school. Researchers found that the survival of plants became personal to the pupils, rather than just an abstract concept that they had learned about in science lessons. It also introduced them to other, related ethical challenges which those lessons rarely address: such as how to produce enough food when space is limited.
Any attempted reimagining of education along transdisciplinary lines would require children’s attainment to be measured differently, the researchers add. ‘It would require a system of testing which measures how children are internalising ideas and what they are expressing – not just what they know,’ Burnard said. ‘That may be an uncomfortable idea for some, but it is the sort of radical thinking we need if education is going to prepare young people for the future.’