Can tech and interdisciplinary learning break down subject silos?

If collaboration and soft skills drive professional triumph post-education, how is pedagogy ensuring student needs are met and what does this mean for digital? Hazel Davis explores

The recent lockdown measures have progressed the use of technology in schools in ways none of us could have predicted. Teachers across primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities are becoming comfortable using tech to set and receive homework and encourage collaboration online. Moreover, educators and parents are realising the benefits interdisciplinary learning technology can bring.

Research has shown that interdisciplinary learning can help develop crucial and transferable skills such as analysis, critical thinking and communication. With its various tools, services and solutions, edtech can really allow interdisciplinary learning to thrive, but does this mean subject silos are no more?

“Interdisciplinary learning is not something new – in fact, that’s how we used to learn in ancient civilisation,” Touhami Abi, manager of the Education Technology track at WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education), told ET. “It was only the Industrial Revolution when education shifted. Ironically, we are going back to interdisciplinary learning because of automation,” he added.

“But automation raises the question: where is our competitive advantage as humans? Creativity and individual problem-solving are complementing technology.”

Outside of the school environment, the internet is now transforming how children learn, giving them access to learning from every different discipline. This has never been clearer than right now, during the coronavirus crisis. Learning is currently being delivered in a range of different formats and this enables students to choose how they learn. “All of this reinforces the importance of students developing digital literacy skills,” says Dr James Stanfield, lecturer in education from the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University.

A square peg in a round hole?

Subject silos may be archaic, but our schools and examinations are still designed to reinforce these silos, according to Dr Stanfield. “Secondary schools are not measured on the development of 21st-century skills and, as a result, there is little interest in the use of pedagogies to support the development of these skills. Passing exams remains the focus and innovative pedagogies may not help children to pass traditional exams.”

Yet, an OECD report from 2015 suggested edtech had no impact on test results across OECD countries, says Dr Stanfield. “There are two reasons for this; lack of teacher training but also lack of innovative pedagogy. The two are therefore interdependent. You can’t have one without the other and this has been a big failure of edtech to date.”

“Secondary schools are not measured on the development of 21st-century skills and, as a result, there is little interest in the use of pedagogies to support the development of these skills” – Dr James Stanfield

Paving the way

“Interdisciplinary learning is not moving as fast as we would like it to,” Abi explained, “but there are some initiatives that are driving ‘project learning’ and interdisciplinary education, such as [French teacher-less university] School 42, which teaches individuals how to learn coding by working in groups, drawing on their personal knowledge and communication skills. Another example is a winner at the WISE Awards, Arkki, which teaches maths through architecture. The very way children interact with these applications encourages collaboration and problem-solving.”

There has been a surge in the adoption of edtech because of the pandemic, with educators adopting emergency online learning soliutions, but, says Abi, “you need around nine months to create a module online. It will be interesting to see what happens in September onwards, but it is likely to take two or three years before we see a radical shift in edtech as a ‘nice to have’ to solving an actual problem.”

However, one of the big challenges for edtech providers is having the right testbed for the software to get real-time feedback on the learning outcomes, as well as to ensure it meets pedagogy benchmarks.

Most schools have had access to technology for many years, but the extent to which they have made use of that technology still varies significantly.

“In part, this is because the curriculum still only necessitates a limited use of technology,” says Simon Carter, marketing and propositions director at RM Education. “It means that schools that do use technology effectively are only able to because of a strong ICT ethos behind them, with a senior leadership team enthusiastic about the importance of technology and an understanding of the money it could save the school long-term. Sadly, this isn’t all schools.” However, he adds, “There’s no question that those schools that do embed technology effectively see the positive impact it has on young people and how it can lead to more effective teaching, not to mention prepare students for what lies ahead of them in the workplace.”

An effective training and “change management” strategy for technology will be necessary to ensure that teachers and staff are confident using the technology that – especially since the COVID-19 restrictions – enables them to do their job day-to-day, supporting interdisciplinary learning. With many heads concerned about teacher workloads before the virus hit, getting technology to work for you can only lead to a more effective and efficiently run school.

“Every student and teacher is different, so schools should look at using those resources that exist (for example, online) to build a much more tailored and effective lesson plan rather than a labour-intensive, bespoke approach,” said Carter. “Technology can not only play a huge role in sharing different, tailored content, but also alleviate teacher workloads and support a more consistent delivery for pupils who need it most.”

Back to basics

A great deal of what’s happening as edtech evolves has required developers to go back to first principles, Murray Morrison, education expert and founder of edtech online learning programme Tassomai, points out. It’s all about understanding “how learning truly happens (rather than trying to replicate the traditional means of delivery), how knowledge truly scaffolds and builds, how personalisation can accelerate learning for all types of student, and how interdisciplinary learning can create enormous pedagogical efficiencies. From my time at the chalkface,” he added, “I remember numerous real-life examples where learning required in one subject, such as maths, would have supported a lesson in science, but the schemes of work did not schedule the learning in the right order; inter-departmental planning, even within a single institution, was often a stretch. With edtech able to look at which points of knowledge acquisition and mastery ease the path to other areas of learning, the opportunity is there to break down subject silos for the immense benefit of teaching and learning.”

There’s no doubt that the future world of work for the current student cohort is very difficult to predict. What schools are doing brilliantly, however, is adapting their approach. “There was a period of time recently where people mistakenly felt that internalised knowledge was a devalued currency in the age of the internet,” concluded Morrison. “Now, the overriding principle is again that students need to work to knowledge mastery, not as an end in itself, but as a means to the higher end of creativity, critical thinking, and adaptability for the future.”

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