Breaking down the silos

I have written previously about the artificial divide between school subjects. Yes, there are practical reasons for teaching art separately to science, or maths in a different room to music. And yet, the separation of the subjects seems increasingly anachronistic in our diverse, post modern, hyper-connected society. If school is where we prepare children to be independent, knowledgeable and reflective individuals, then we may well be doing them a disservice by perpetuating the silo mentality prevalent in state funded education. Life simply isn't about compartmentalisation any more. The working day often passes in a blur of recognisable, but highly connected and blended ideas, activities and objects.

The art (design) and science that went into creating your iPhone for example, is well documented. Photography is art and science combined. The mathematical principles you learnt in school are no longer recognisable as such - because they are often applied differently and in the context of other influences, in a multitude of different ways during an average week. It is no surprise then, that a movement is growing to incorporate discrete subjects together in schools. The very act of combining disparate subjects from the curriculum, proponents claim, helps children to understand the world in entirely new ways and opens their eyes to new possibilities.

An article in the January 3rd 2014 edition of the Times Educational Supplement expresses exactly the sentiments above. Entitled: 'Sparks fly when art and science interact', the article reports on what happened when one school decided to organise a festival where scientists and artists could dialogue. The author, Hugh Jones reveals how this cross-curricular celebration of two apparently unrelated disciplines actually found much common ground. 'Life is rich in the variety of ways in which we interpret, communicate, argue and predict,' Jones writes, 'and we wanted to encourage our students to have a broad vision of these skills.'

During the festival, students were asked to answer questions such as 'what is the right space for art and science to collide?' and did many activities including making video recordings of artists and scientists discussing their work. 'The event really broadened how artists thought of science and how scientists thought of art' Jones says, 'and hopefully, the lesson that the two disciplines can work together will be a lasting one.'

There are several approaches to de-compartmentalisation of the curriculum. At Albany Senior High School in Auckland, New Zealand, I witnessed a group of students in the same learning space, wandering between three seemingly unrelated classes as 3 teachers ran their lessons. Students were able to choose at what point they entered and left each session, and how they interpreted their understanding not only of the lesson content, but how the three subjects related to each other.

Another approach is practised by the teachers at Skipton Girls School in Yorkshire, England. Skipton is a designated engineering academy, and students at the school regularly learn through the combined delivery of two or more subjects. One small group proudly showed me their project which combined Physics and Music. They were very proud of the work they had done around the analysis of audio waveforms, frequencies and sound synthesis to create their own songs. When I asked one student why it was so important to combine subjects, she replied 'It helps me to understand the world better.'

What are your views on cross-curricular teaching? Should we make a concerted effort to break down the subject silos, or should we maintain the status quo?

Image by Mike Licht

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Breaking down the silos by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


norbert boruett said…
Indeed this already recognized in Medical Education, as evidence by the springing up of reformed curriculum ie competency based curriculum, case based curriculum, where there is a deliberate effort to distill out the knowledge, practice and attitude and blended them together ie for competency. For problem based curriculum, problems from the community are consolidated and learners follow them up.
The traditional curriculum was terrible, though some die hard's and alum
norbert boruett said…
Medical Educators noted the complications associated with compartmentalization, as Wheeler calls them silos. Indeed the advent of problem based , case based, competency based curriculum is a reaction of perceived failure of silos. In traditional curriculum the basic sciences were taught in the first 1-3 years, and then in 3-5, 6 the poor doctor trainee, was exposed to the clinical area. Many faced challenges in recalling the basic sciences to explain the pathology behind the conditions they were managing. So, lets start lets teach holistically from day care
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments Norbert. I'm familiar with problem based learning, and indeed we have been applying those principles here in my Masters programme and also in Medical education for some time. I wasn't aware that it was a direct response to the compartmentalisation of subject teaching, but I can see that it makes sense. I agree that we need to approach education from a more holistic and systemic perspective - so many thanks for your contribution to this debate.
GeoMouldey said…
I am privileged to be part of a foundation staff opening a new Secondary School in New Zealand next month. Our whole curriculum philosophy is founded upon breaking down the artificial barriers between subjects. Whilst deconstructing our NZ Curriculum document we found massive connections between the concepts, contexts and skills contained within the various learning areas. Our curriculum is now based upon the most powerful of these connections. Similar to Skipton we have modules incorporating various subject areas together: 3 subjects on 'big modules' 2 subjects in 'small modules' and single disciplines in 'spin modules.' Read more here:
Steve Wheeler said…
I'm so pleased to hear about your school and its ethos to promote connective education. It shows that this is a movement that is growing in pace - and also that it seems as though NZ is leading the way! best wishes for sustainable success with your new venture.
Anonymous said…
Interesting thoughts. At the local free school, there is an emphasis on the theme of 'learning through making' where all subjects are related to creation. This is effective as it shows there is not a divide between the content of different subjects, as well as application of subject knowledge in the real practical world and that subject knowledge from one area can be used to help and inform another, e.g. building maths knowledge through making something using measurements.
And what if the education in art, for teens, must stay always in specific art school?
Meanwhile, the bureaucracy degrades arts education, especially at high schools.

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