Researchers suggest that a fundamentally reformed approach to education, in which various topics teach related concepts like climate change or food security, will better prepare children for the future.

Education experts from the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh argue in a recent report that there is a strong argument for a radical overhaul of the school curriculum, in which subjects are no longer taught separately. Instead, they argue that the arts and sciences should work together to teach real-world issues in a way that is informed by students’ personal experiences.

The model is based on Renaissance polymaths such as Leonardo Da Vinci, who worked through disciplines in search of greater understanding. Similar, so-called “trans-disciplinary” methods are already in use in well-regarded educational systems like Finland’s. The concept also echoes recent calls by the Educate the Future youth movement to break down topic silos in order to teach climate change.

The research paper, published in the journal Curriculum Perspectives, also includes data from two recent experiments in which students benefited from a teaching methodology that blurred subject lines.

Creating ‘Math-Artworks’ and Growing Food

A project that invited South African teenagers from deprived backgrounds to create ‘math-artworks,’ provided evidence that the project not only increased their familiarity with key mathematical concepts, but also helped them appreciate the importance of maths in their own lives.

After learning to grow food on their school grounds, elementary school children in Aberdeen demonstrated a greater understanding of food security and environmental conservation problems in the second case study.

Pam Burnard, University of Cambridge Professor of Arts, Creativities, and Education, 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 in a similar way because tomorrow’s adults will have to problem-solve differently due to the existential crises they will face: especially those of climate, sustainability… “

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.”

STEM Learning vs. STEAM Learning

The paper refers to a new area in education known as ‘STEAM’ education. This aims to reintroduce the ‘A’ of arts into national efforts to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects in response to a vital skills gap in related industries.

Some educators claim that the focus on STEM is undermining other topics, and that the arts are also effective resources for teaching the problem-solving skills that 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 propose giving schools more flexibility in determining how to achieve the curriculum’s general study goals. Teachers and leadership teams will make joint decisions and discuss best practises on how to involve students in unifying, cross-curricular topics like environmental sustainability.

They go on to say that this could include creative use of space and resources, as well as stronger relations between schools and their communities, in order to relate learning to students’ lived experiences outside of the classroom.

A growing body of evidence suggests that a transdisciplinary approach improves students’ development of key skills. Students in South Africa were asked to create art that demonstrated the connections between math and the world around them in the math-artwork project described in the report. Following a review of the 113 entries, it was discovered that students had used measurement, ratio and proportion, and geometry in their creations.

However, the researchers discovered that participants were intensely engaged with the sense of math at a degree seldom seen in traditional lessons. The Stressed Vitruvian Man, influenced by Da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man, was a particularly powerful illustration created by a 16-year-old male student. The young artist’s thesis, like Da Vinci’s, was partially a study of human body proportions, but the student also used it to focus on the possibilities and pitfalls of establishing a society based solely on mathematical concepts.

When elementary school students in Aberdeen were given the opportunity to take responsibility for a small piece of land in their school, they demonstrated a deeper understanding of topics such as food production and natural resource management. The survival of plants became personal to the students, rather than just an abstract idea that they had heard about in science classes, according to the researchers. It also exposed them to other, similar ethical issues that are rarely addressed in those classes, such as how to produce enough food when space is small.

Any effort to reimagine education along transdisciplinary lines will necessitate a new way of measuring children’s achievement. 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.”

Source: University of Cambridge

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