GCSE subjects are neatly organised into disciplines to allow knowledge to be organised and taught easily. This blog is an example of how that disciplinary knowledge is being transformed and reorganised to a certain extent to allow students to use ‘interdisciplinary’ knowledge to think about real world problems.
The term ‘discipline’ implies a relationship between knowledge and power. A discipline suggests that some people have this specialist knowledge i.e. teachers, and this knowledge is to be passed onto others i.e. students. The drawbacks of learning within discipline silos include a sense of dilletantism i.e. knowing about one area in depth and having a superficial knowledge of other areas. This is particularly more evident in Universities. Subject disciplines also allow only narrow and specific ways of thinking and discourse as I will exemplify later. Having an array of GCSE subjects can largely overcome this, however, students can not take every GCSE subject. Anecdotally, students see learning limited to the silos in which they are taught and can not necessarily apply similar knowledge and skills across the curriculum in different contexts.
Interdisciplinarity involves a critical awareness of the relationship between disciplines. It can help students to make connections between GCSE subject silos more explicit. Essentially, there are problems and issues that cannot be solved using solely disciplinary expertise. The ultimate aim at this level is for students to deepen their understanding of disciplinary knowledge through a dialogue or connection between two or more disciplines. The added benefits of giving space for reflection and the impacts on memory could ultimately impact positively on students GCSE results. Through interdisciplinary approaches, new forms of knowledge are created especially through interdisciplinary collaborative learning. It can be messy, intellectually laboursome and emotionally challenging to learn in this way too building a resilience and character strength in students.
Do we want students to simply have an array of multi-disciplinary GCSE results? Or would we rather them leave school being able to begin to problem solve effectively taking into account interdisciplinary approaches. Thinking about the whole person, we should be connecting this newly aquired knowledge to give it an authentic spin and how it can be applied in the real world particularly to big issues facing the plant. Big issues that ultimately we want future generations to be actively thinking about and coming up with sustainable solutions and ways of being. I would argue that students should be liberated to see new perspectives and think more creatively about their own subject knowledge and other ways of doing things particularly through democratic and collaborative based learning approaches.
So how can interdisciplinarity be encouraged at GCSE level? Take UCL’s Grand Challenges for example. These are a mechanism that allow expertise from across the university to be brought together to address the worlds key issues. Using the ‘Sustainable Cities’ Grand Challenge for example to encourage interdisciplinarity has been an experiment in our schools first term with a year 10 GCSE cohort.
We have the challenge of both wanting to help students to achieve excellent GCSE grades but at the same time encouraging them to leave school with a wisdom and having more than just a strong set of grades. The two are probably not mutually exclusive. Each term will therefore have an overarching theme in the form of a Grand Challenge. This term was ‘Sustainable Cities‘.
Firstly, academics from UCL launched the Grand Challenge to students in an assembly and modelled how their disciplinary expertise applies to the Grand Challenge. Students also had a half hour session each week where facilitation occured to help students to make connections between their subjects and the Grand Challenge. Students also came up with their own specific problem relating to the Grand Challenge in their learning set (group of 6). Students were modelled the challenge through another assembly, with the aim of producing a poster fair at the univeristy at the end of term. Their learning set poster would demonstrate their emerging interdisciplinary knowledge/understanding and how it could be applied to a specific challenge associated with the Sustainable Cities theme. The collaborative nature of the task, where students in their learning set of 6 whom study varying GCSE subjects, must use their accumulative knowledge to apply to the problem they identified. Ultimately, they had to present at the university to academics who would further challenge their ideas.
The assembly lead by the Deputy Head teachers of the school modelled how interdisciplinary knowledge from various subjects applied to a specific problem. This is an integral part of the process as students sometimes struggled to see the point in this and needed explicit explanation as how this process both benefits their GCSE subject understanding and development as an educated individual. Subject disciplines were also encouraged to make the connections between learning in their subjects and how this may apply to the Grand Challenge and could form interesting discussion points. Students interacting with the Grand Challenge on a daily basis in individual lessons increases their motivation and ability to make those deeper connections between subject knowledge and the Grand Challenge. Reflective practices were ideally filtering through from different avenues.
Students were accredited with a certificate from the university on satisfactory completion of the Grand Challenge and generally were motivated about this being part of their CV beyond GCSE subjects. The university academics were impressed by the professionalism of the students and their ability to talk about their topics in depth. Students were able to connect their disciplinary knowledge to issues as varied from housing & gentrification, immigration to sustainable energy and & solutions. Knowledge from a unit on ‘Urban Change’ in Geography lessons was combined with Engineering solutions for example. Or some students connected the ideas of society in cities from reading ‘Lord of the Flies’ in English with Sociology lessons. There were a huge range of issues and applied knowledge on display.
Moving forward, there is potential for subject disciplines to work closely together to design curriculum projects that directly integrate disciplinary specific knowledge and skills. Although some areas are understandably reluctant in a tight schedule to ‘cover content’. Being clever to map content and skills across the curriculum would alleviate this to some extent.
‘Interdisciplinarity’ Joe Moran
‘Rethinking Interdisciplinarity Across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences’ Felicity Callard and Dez Fitzgerald