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Curriculum is a construct

by Darron Davies

We need to remember that curriculum is a construct.

School subject areas were appointed at a time, by people, within a climate of agendas. Even today there are many things explicit and implicit within curricula. Read any modern curriculum and you will notice a whole set of values!

Education has always been driven by outside forces. 

The first educational attempts to explore the outside world – e.g. the teaching of geography in western schools in the 1850s – was strongly motivated by nationalism and patriotism. An increased move towards science teaching was heavily influenced by Darwinism.

The subjects that have traditionally underpinned curricula, since you and I were at school: arithmetic, geography, history, grammar and literature, stem from the results of an educational inquiry in the United States in the 1890s: the Report of the Committee on Secondary School Studies, National Educational Association, July 9, 1892. This was called the model of the 'five windows of the soul.’ For over one hundred years schools have been heavily influenced by this model!

Just because a subject area is ‘the norm’ doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be the norm in the future. There was a time in western schools when students studied the classics, read philosophy, as well as recited rhetoric. Many teachers would have been horrified, at one stage, by the shift away from the teaching of Latin in Australian schools.

As we enter the third millennium educational systems are increasingly challenging the ‘five windows’ model based on sound educational research. This research points to the fact that in our information age we need to increasingly work even more creatively with information. We need to draw upon a range of disciplines in order to face modern complexities. The artificial separation of subject areas within schools may be doing us a disservice rather than a service.

Transdisciplinary learning focuses on working in and across subject areas in order to open newer learning.

In the words of Basarab Nicolescu, Co-founder, with René Berger of the Study Group on Transdisciplinarity (PDF document) at UNESCO (1992):

Transdisciplinary education has its origins in the inexhaustible richness of the scientific spirit, which is based on questioning, as well as on the rejection of all a priori answers and certitude contradictory to the facts. At the same time, it revalues the role of deeply rooted intuition, of imagination, of sensitivity, and of the body in the transmission of knowledge. Only in this way can society of the twenty-first century reconcile effectiveness and affectivity.

Transdisciplinary learning doesn’t propose the abolishing of subjects. Instead, it proposes a framework – one that can be quite varied – in which schools structure learning in such a way that students confront challenges by utilising the skills within and across a range of disciplines.

Where transdisciplinary learning is different from traditionally themed or integrated units is that students not only have an opportunity to work in depth, through  a range of disciplines, but also recognise, through practice and reflection, the innate value and challenges in applying a range of disciplines to a topic. This quite naturally opens important questions about thinking, and provides a perfect opportunity for students to realise that disciplines are constructed, are continuously changing and can be questioned.

Where transdisciplinary learning empowers the learner is in seeing how, by working across disciplines, we can see an issue in an even more three dimensional depth.

Facing the challenge of investigating ‘hunger’ e.g. a student could realise that this topic is perceived from scientific, cross cultural and personal perspectives. The student realises that many contradictions exist – learning as a result becomes an active, engaging and empowering process – "You are a part of this. It isn’t just a world of facts to be consumed."

Disciplines are no longer Gods that we bow down to, blocks that we define where we are and what we do. They are opportunities to explore different ways of thinking and in turn explore our thinking.

In transdisciplinary learning students are not confined to one model or one subject area. What we learn in the arts can help us find an analogy in scientific thinking. Our mathematical understandings enable us to read UNESCO graphs and gain new insight into the distribution of food and wealth. Students find gaps and possibilities as they move through and across disciplines – a student sees how an aesthetic perspective (an advert) may be perceived as political propaganda. Another student observes how aid agencies walk a delicate line between raising aid and distributing it within often complex war torn environments. Students enter into a lively discussion on the values and shortcomings of the topic ‘hunger’. Some even discuss the limitations they see in a discipline and question how it might be changed.

Transdisciplinary learning models much of the way we learn in the real world – facing real problems, seeking solutions, and crossing boundaries to find answers. When researching and applying knowledge an architect doesn’t say, "I am now doing maths!" An architect creatively uses a range of skills and disciplines to tackle complex issues.

The boundaries that students will be expected to cross outside school should encourage us to look even more at what boundaries we can cross in schools: the boundaries between disciples, the boundaries between teachers, and the boundaries between working with other students, parents and the community.

Transdisciplinary learning enables students to explore discipline areas through the motivation of deeply exploring an issue or topic. Instead of doing Maths or English we are seeing how Maths and English connect to a topic, how the thinking in each area can be applied, and what sorts of questions these types of thinking ask.

The shift towards transdisciplinary learning is a shift in how we view the curriculum – a recognition that we can creatively move into, through, and across disciplines areas, in order to open meaning rather than be pinned down by so called facts.

Darron Davies

© Copyright In Clued - Ed 2009


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