From curriculum borders to learning horizons

Watching a ‘Horizon’ programme on how illusions shed light on how the senses operate, I experienced the familiar sense of feeling that the fairly arbitrary distinctions we make between ‘subjects’ in school are as illusory as some of the common-sense perceptions we cling to, but that empirical observation reveal to be false.

I like being an English teacher, but, on the whole I don’t much enjoy the inter- subject rivalry that tends to characterise secondary school life, albeit usually at a fairly lighthearted level. You see, really I want to be able to bring everything I learn about into my teaching practice. And I want to be able to lend the particular areas of expertise I may have picked up, and borrow in turn those of others, in the service of richer, deeper, broader learning experiences that I and my students can share.

How to do that in the confines of a rigid timetable and a curriculum geared towards discretely examined subject areas is difficult to engineer. On a personal level, I try to do a little of it simply by making connections. For example when teaching about the way language and perception may interact I find myself talking about the relationship between the wavelength of light and the perception of colour, showing how the ‘white’ of an interactive whiteboard, and the ‘black’ parts of an image projected onto it are in fact the same (in fact the ‘black’ is actually slightly brighter than the ‘white’ as some light from the projector still bleeds through onto the ‘black’ areas).

That kind of exploration fascinates me, and I think that the insights being gained in perceptual psychology are directly applicable to, say, literary criticism. Obviously that, in itself, is hardly a new idea. ‘English’ at university level has long been the site, at some places at least, of interdisciplinary innovation, but that has filtered down to school level, if at all, in very weakened form.

That I was watching that ‘Horizon’ programme on BBC iplayer on my phone while lying in bed several days after it was first broadcast, and was then able immediately to begin composing this response on that same handheld device, before uploading it for potentially anyone to read also acts as a reminder that ways of learning, thinking about that learning, and developing and disseminating the products of that learning are changing in ways that the education system as currently constituted is only beginning to take the first lumbering cognisance of.

(And in the current political climate it may even be lumbering in quite the wrong direction…

2 thoughts on “From curriculum borders to learning horizons

  1. Great post Anthony.

    Your final paragraph I think highlights a key conundrum in that we have the technology, many of our students have the technology and yet our education system (on the whole) seems to be “lumbering” away from embracing it; instead crawling more in a backward direction towards methods and tools of old.

    For every teacher who embraces technology or new ideas, there are 2 who won’t, 1 who might, and 1 who wants to but is not sure how. I think we have to grab the one who wants to and teach them to teach the one who might. This is certainly the approach I have taken in my own school. A drip feed approach to tech/innovation in the classroom and the only route that I have had success with. But I always find myself asking if it is sustainable? What happens if those of us who care about moving education forwards leave the school? Will we be replaced by like minded people? Will the school stall/stagnate? And this leads to the bigger issue. This approach while effective on the small scale is unsustainable and avoids tackling the bigger issue. How do we get the two “who won’t” embrace technology or new ideas on board?

    I think this is why it is very important that we discuss and debate the purpose of education. I think this is why we must take the debate to the staff room, to our classrooms, to parents evening and to the government. Because, there are many interested parties who are not part of the debate as they do not blog, they are not on Twitter, they don’t use Facebook and for some they are simply not interested (yet)! If we can make more people sit up and see the value of innovation, of new ways of thinking then perhaps we can achieve a more open curriculum that offers “richer, deeper, broader learning experiences.

  2. I can really relate to this. Especially as an ICT teacher where many ICT lessons were learnt learning the skills using fictitious projects when with a little collaboration we could have used real projects from other subjects.

    The best teaching and learning experience I had was running a gifted and talented masterclass with an English teaching colleague (you can read about it on my blog). Where we not only covered English and ICT but also real world issues of geography, history, ethics, human rights arts and religion. The real world isn’t split into neat subjects!

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