Siloed vs Cross-curricular, how can we structure learning in a digital age?

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Living in 2020 feels like we’re living through history. I’ve experienced this a couple of times in my life. Once with the Christchurch Earthquakes of 2010/11 and the Twin Towers terror attacks of 2001. However, 2020 seems so much more global and long-lasting in its effects compared to those two events. As I reflect on the events that have unfolded so far, I can’t help but think about how our responses to the events that have happened are shaped by what we know, how we think and what we can articulate. These three pillars, knowledge, thought and communication are a basis for education. I argue that these cornerstones of democracy are best found in a classical liberal arts education.

There has been a trend within education, in recent times, to merge subjects together and place student centred, or even, student-chosen, context at the apex of determining what students should learn. As a teacher, I have witnessed the passion a student can demonstrate when following a topic they are interested in. However, I have also noticed students leap ahead, particularly in my specialist subject area of mathematics, and attempt to learn material before they have learnt the bases on which that material rests. As teachers seek out more engaging contexts for students to learn, or allow students to choose contexts themselves, teachers must also be mindful of their role as guides and navigators through the knowledge pathways. Teachers themselves know the order of which content is best delivered or at the very least have a rationale behind how they deliver it to ensure students are given a full picture when learning.

My particular rallying call is to bring back importance to stand-alone siloed subjects such as Classics, History, Art History, Literature, Art, Science and Mathematics. Each of these subjects holds the keys to different lenses through which to see the world. They provide traditions of analysis that have been honed through hundreds of years and, in some cases, thousands of years and in themselves provide a context to push the intellectual boundaries of students in terms of their ability to think, write and analyse. Within these subjects, there are subject experts. These are teachers that know and are passionate about their subject and are perfectly qualified to act as the guide to a student. The teacher knows the subject backwards and forwards and can argue a perspective, with evidence, to a deep level. It is this kind of intellectual robustness that we are in such dire need of in our public discourse.

It could be argued that the context a student finds themselves in when they become an adult will bear no resemblance to the contexts found in history, classics and algebra. I tend to agree. However, I would suggest that the context used in school and the context found in life will always be different and must always be different. If we try and predict the contexts that students will find in their life we will fail miserably. Each individual lives such a diverse life that we can never predict what will serve them best in adulthood. The question that students often raised with me when teaching something like solving equations in algebra was “when will we use this in real life?” I would tend to answer something like: only about 2% of you that become engineers or academics in a science faculty will use this specific skill. However, the skill and problem solving you have developed in your brain will be generally applicable to a wide range of contexts that you or I can’t even imagine. The same is true of any topic studied across these classical disciplines. The specific knowledge may not in itself be important, (although I would argue that in most of the subjects I mention it actually is) but the skill you learn in examining your own opinions, communicating and arguing a point will be. I am interested in what a student takes into their life rather than what fact they learn in class.

This is where I begin to struggle with many aspects of educational research. Much research is based on measurable outcomes during a person’s experience as a student. Very little focus is on long term outcomes as adults at age 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60. Many governments base their funding in education in reference to their PISA scores and rankings. However, we seldom hear governments basing their policy and funding in education on longitudinal studies. In most western countries, this consideration of long term outcomes is placed on parents.

In a free democracy, parents have some limited ability to choose the place of education for their students. Before continuing with this train of thought, it is worth acknowledging that the choices available to parents vary wildly according to many factors around socio-economics. It is interesting to look at the properties of schools that parents with more choices tend to send their children. They tend to be schools with more curriculum time and emphasis dedicated to traditional siloed subjects. Other schools tend to have a more technical, or contextual, focus.

This brings up difficult questions for a society to ask itself. Should we be breaking up the style of education based on parental choices due to socio-economics? Why do parents with more resources tend to send their children to schools that have a bias towards a more traditional education? Why do governments place so much emphasis on PISA scoring? Why don’t governments place emphasis on long term outcomes across decades of an individual’s life? Do different educational experiences lead to different life outcomes? Is pandering to context and focussing on a technical education at secondary level perpetuating and worsening class differences? Do we push students towards career choices too early?

I don’t feel like I have satisfactory answers to all of these questions. However, I feel they are important to discuss. I think there are things we can start to do to address these questions. While my general answer here is to bring back a liberal arts education, it is only one possible pathway. I want to know your answer, to any of the questions I posed above, even (especially) if you disagree with my proposal. I believe that it will be through our honest and open conversations that we will make progress on questions like these. Please leave your comments and use this as a platform to advance our conversation.

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