The story starts with an experience towards the end of my high school career when I was studying physics and chemistry (among other subjects). During one particular week the topics being taught were so closely related that I imagined that the two teachers were talking to each other about what they were teaching. I asked one the teachers about this, and he said that they both worked quite independently. This left me with a puzzle for over 45 years. With current discussion in the educational community on the matter of silos and connectivism, now seems like a good time to give that puzzle an airing.
Of Subject Interdependency
Subjects at most high schools are taught quite independently of each other, and yet the links between them are obvious. The study of literature is crucially dependent on a thorough understanding of the language in which the literature is written, often English in English speaking countries. Similarly the study of science is dependent on a reasonable grasp of mathematics.
Speaking from my own background in the sciences, I was learning the mathematics that I was to need in science classes typically one or two years beforehand, a subject that I have always enjoyed. As a consequence, I found the mathematical content of science classes to be trivially easy.
Development – Part 1
There is a theme that I have encountered regularly for decades which is that school leavers avoid reading physics or chemistry at university because in their minds they contain too much mathematics, and instead opt for one of the “softer” sciences such as environmental science or psychology.
There is an area of mathematics known as “statistics”. Understanding statistics depends on first understanding some other “simpler” areas of mathematics. (If you must know what those areas are, they are algebra and calculus.)
At the time of writing Swinburne University of Technology offers a Bachelor Degree in Psychology with a compulsory unit “Foundations of Statistics“. Also at the time of writing Curtin University includes what I would regard as high school mathematics, but without any statistics, in its physical science courses. These two examples come from a few minutes research on the Internet, and reinforce the idea that softer sciences need more powerful mathematical techniques than the physical sciences to obtain meaningful results at the undergraduate level.
We now have all the ingredients necessary to describe a potential problem. Anybody leaving year 12 and opting to study a “soft” science on the basis of their weakness in mathematics is making a big mistake. The cause is perhaps obvious: high school biology, for example, is less about mathematics and more about form and function than either physics or chemistry, leading students to think mistakenly that this will carry over into their university studies.
Development – Part 2
The preceding section identifies two issues. The first issue is the apparent compartmentalisation of knowledge, and is the burden of this post. The second issue of people not understanding what is needed to study soft sciences is beyond the scope of this post, and may be the subject of a future post.
The teaching of different subjects by different teachers is a paradigm based on silos of knowledge. It is up to the student to develop an understanding of how those subjects are related. The idea of a holistic approach to teaching in high schools seems to be regarded as being revolutionary. Finland may be the first country in the world that has addressed the issue of helping students understand the links between traditional subjects. As the Independent newspaper puts it “Subjects scrapped and replaced with ‘topics’“.
This then raises the question of what we should be asking our high school teachers to be teaching. While many teachers might feel threatened by this, I would have expected each of my physics, chemistry and mathematics high school teachers to be comfortable teaching across all three subject areas. A similar case could be argued for history and geography. You could probably suggest your own combination of subjects.
The reaction from teachers in being asked to engage in cross-disciplinary teaching is perhaps predictable. It came as no surprise to me that the target of the above link includes the words “the reforms have met objections from teachers and heads“. But as Marjo Kyllonen, Helsinki’s education manager, has said “There are schools that are teaching in the old fashioned way which was of benefit in the beginnings of the 1900s – but the needs are not the same and we need something fit for the 21st century.“. I suspect it may be many years before this approach becomes the norm in Westernised countries. I think that it will take the efforts of educators with this vision that will help to shorten the timescale. I see social media, physical conferences and online conferences as being essential communications tools for those educators to talk to each other and the wider community.
I will confess to my own impatience for the advent of holistic teaching.