1st November, 2016

How should we learn in schools?

By Rachael S

Wanis Kabbaj, a transportation expert, tells us how he imagines a future transport system, in which there are no traffic lights, no lanes, no speed limits and modular cars. Where did he get these ideas? Biology. Our veins and arteries.

Watch the TED talk which inspired this article, here.

Kabbaj suggests that the best way to find a solution to the lack of space in our cities and the unsustainable pressures on our road networks, is to look to the lessons we can learn from the 60,000 miles of blood vessels inside each of us (which is two and a half times the Earth's circumference, by the way). 

It seems obvious to look to this as a source of a potential solution, now he has pointed it out at least, but something I know that I would never have thought of. 

Is this a failing of mine? Probably. But is it one I share with others and, if so, why?

It seems to me that, whilst I don't imagine everyone being able to conceptualise artery-like transport networks, this way of thinking is limited by our subject-specific approach to learning, which is prevalent in our modern education system within schools.

We are all familiar with the lessons we sat in maths, English, science, geography and so forth. The linear paths of knowledge set out within these subjects are clearly beneficial for teachers and students in the way they allow for knowledge to be built upon over time, moving from the foundations of basic concepts to the intricate awnings of more complex theories. These pathways are clearly important for learning, but should they be the only structure afforded to learners?

If children and young people are never given the opportunity to refer to learning from other subjects and combine approaches, why would they start doing so as adults? It is true that some students will develop these skills naturally, but should they not be ones that we deliberately foster in our students?

Life is rarely split into segmented sections of knowledge, which are applied independently of skills acquired from other disciplines. In schools, however, there is little cross-over between subjects and children are, therefore, not given the opportunity to amalgamate the understanding they have built in geography and science, maths and design, German and art, or in all of the above (okay, so that would be a crazy project, but you can take my point).

Many of you, I know, will be screaming out that this sounds like a call for the pendulum to swing back to the project-based learning of yesteryear. It is not. Clearly, as I have already stated, subject-specific learning allows for an important framework for teaching. But perhaps the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction, if we entirely miss the value this project approach affords to students.

Many schools have seen this as a problem and have adapted interesting approaches to reinstating cross-discipline thinking into the curriculum.

Google is famous for it's 20% time, in which workers are given a fifth of their working hours to embark upon projects of their choosing. As a teacher at Bradway Primary School, we trialled 20% time with Year Five children, giving them two afternoons a week to work on their own initiatives. Of course, unlike Google, there was a little vetting of the ideas, as we were well aware of the likelihood of some 'less-than-educational' ideas.

One group designed and made a Lego chess set.

I was, however, astounded at the scale of the children's ambition and the marvellous projects they undertook, which included:

  •  A working chess set designed and made out of lego.
  •  A paper mache scale model of the solar system.
  •  A rally car race planned across Africa.

They were asked to present their ideas for sign-off, and had to pitch them to teachers before being allowed to get going. Resources were sourced by themselves, or requested at least 24 hours before the next lesson, demanding project management and co-operation between team members. By allowing children the freedom to choose their own projects, they were wonderfully excited about the afternoons.

Most importantly, it gave the pupils a chance to pull together their knowledge from all of their learning and combine it to solve problems or develop new concepts of their own.

Some of the projects were dismal. I won't rose tint the picture, as this certainly wasn't an escape from planning or marking - these afternoons were some of my most tiring as a teacher! But those who struggled, were the children who had not developed the skills of independent thinking which our modern world demands of them. And it was not always the children who did well in individual subjects who flourished - after all, those children had learnt best in a more structured setting.

I am not suggesting that every teacher now starts to give children 20% time, or that we rush to find similar initiatives to launch in every school. Perhaps, however, we should all be contemplating the opportunities we afford children to be freer in their thinking?

If we continue to focus solely on the subjects we are individually responsible for, or seek to neatly box ideas as being subject-specific, we miss out on the beauty of the solutions more creative, interdisciplinary thought can achieve. And then who will design our artery-like driverless cars of tomorrow?

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