Improving the quality of school education is a key to the future economic development and social wellbeing of Scotland. Despite an ageing demographic, we must ensure that Scotland’s human capital keeps up with the rapidly evolving skills demands of an increasingly global labour market driven by relentless scientific and technical innovation.
The demand for knowledge and skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is particularly high, especially in STEM-based industries and businesses, which are key growth sectors in Scotland’s economy. Skills are the global currency of the 21st century, in which working life will become increasingly networked and employment growth will favour highly-skilled workers. Meeting future demand will require more inter- and multi-disciplinary knowledge, skills and training, and fundamental changes throughout our education system.
In the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), the transformative programme for age 3-18 education in Scotland, interdisciplinary learning (IDL) is one of the four “contexts for learning”, sitting alongside the more familiar curriculum areas and subjects. But it seems that IDL is not yet as well established as it is intended.
IDL requires a clear understanding of the nature, benefits and limitations of the disciplines on which it is founded. Disciplines are branches of learning characterised by distinct areas of study, with concepts, theories, skills, tools and applications, and are inhabited by groups of like-minded people with a shared disciplinary language. In our schools they equate to familiar subjects, such as maths, biology or history, which give rigour and structure to the development of knowledge.
Disciplinary communities guard their boundaries in competition with other subjects, yet it is in the gaps between – the interdisciplinary areas – that major research insights, advances in knowledge and economically and socially important innovations occur. This is where Scottish education needs now to turn its attention.
Key to developing IDL is the recognition that the more fundamental the idea or skill that has been learned, the greater should be its breadth of applicability to problems and its transferability to other areas of learning.
In good IDL, learners tackle relevant and practical questions which allow them not simply to make connections between two or more disciplines – not in itself a bad thing – but also to draw on, develop and enrich their disciplinary knowledge and skills. Here IDL lets learners transfer and apply their knowledge into other areas and to gain a deeper understanding of the inter-relatedness of disciplines and phenomena.
The practice of IDL in STEM subjects broadens an awareness of career opportunities and helps stimulate the curiosity and motivation of learners, especially where the contexts of IDL are real-world issues, such as climate change. In addition to promoting skills, such as systems thinking, synthesis and evaluation, IDL also encourages co-operative learning, involving teamwork and self-direction, thus rehearsing practices that are common in the learner’s future workplace.
Implementation of IDL seems to be lagging behind the wider roll-out of CfE. Addressing this should be a high priority. Success will require sustained support through initial teacher education and professional development, and the ongoing development of professional learning communities. This can only be achieved by greater collaboration of schools, local authorities, universities and colleges, industry and other agencies.
A long-term national partnership programme of actions has been established to support the development and implementation of IDL as a fundamental practice in Scottish education. It involves, among others, the Learned Societies’ Group for Scottish Science Education (which is co-ordinated by the Royal Society of Edinburgh), the STEM education committee (which advises Scottish Government), Education Scotland, the General Teaching Council, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the Association of Directors of Education, the Scottish Government, universities, colleges, parent groups and teaching unions.
• Colin Graham is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a member of the Learned Societies’ Group for Scottish Science Education and the STEM Educational Committee