Welcome to my Professional Learning blog.
My name is Matt Nicoll and I am a high school teacher in New Zealand, interested in improving the classroom experience for my students. I am open to trialing new approaches and hope to use this blog to reflect on my ideas and practices.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Do Traditional Subjects Need a Shake-Up?

In October this year, I was allowed to go to Melbourne with my Head of Department and the 2014 Head of Mathematics. We went to four very inspiring schools, including Camberwell High SchoolJohn Monash Science School and Dandenong High School. We all agreed that we learned a lot from this visit. There were things we wished we could do, but our architecture will not allow that in the same way as the schools we visited. There were also a lot of things we thought we could adapt and/or adopt without needing to change much at our school.

One of the things that got my mind racing was that Camberwell HS have combined their Science and Mathematics Departments into one faculty. Another was that John Monash SS teaches most subjects via scientific contexts. Then, there was the team teaching at John Monash SS and Dandenong HS. This made me think about the current format of our subjects, primarily at the junior level but also our NCEA subjects.

In New Zealand, we actually have a very useful Curriculum document which allows for a lot of individuality, both for teachers and for schools. It has allowed me to explore things with my classes in more abstract ways and to focus on the things they care about more than what the old NZC prescribed I had to cover. I have always thought that NCEA was overly prescriptive, so contradictory to the new(ish) NZC. However, in talking to others on Twitter (thank you #edchatnz!!), talking to my colleagues while in Melbourne, and looking at the things being done at those schools in Melbourne, I have realised that it is my own myopia that was making me see NCEA as a barrier.

My Year 11 students are delighted (sometimes they are just relieved!) that they get Level 1 Numeracy credits from an Internal Assessment we do in Science (Physics 1.1). I am delighted that the skills my students learn in Mathematics help them analyse their experiments. I appreciate the English and Social Sciences Departments for the work they do with students so it is easy for me to get them to do research in a scientific context. These were the catalysts that got me thinking...

In the junior school, there are so many areas we see cross-over. In Science, we often use the film Gattaca within one of our biology topics to spark debate about the ethics of DNA Fingerprinting. English and Social Sciences often do the same thing. So why not look at some cross-curricular inquiry? Each subject could have their own marking criteria/rubric for the actual assessment, bu the students could be working on their inquiry up to three lessons per day. This is just one example, but there are many more, such as: Sustainability; Conspiracy Theories; and Catastrophes.

In the NCEA years, I can see this being more challenging. However, combining Mathematics and Science could be a feasible possibility. A lot of the Science Achievement Standards involve mathematical skills; a lot of Mathematics Achievement Standards could be taught and/or assessed using experiments. The learning could be a lot deeper and the links between subjects made a lot more explicit. The students could have up to two lessons per day learning and applying the same skills, ones they often find challenging when taught exclusively in Science or in Mathematics.

Is it time to look at other ways to guide our students on their educational journey? Is it time to say goodbye to some of our traditional subjects? Timetables and architecture may prove barriers to this in secondary schools, though. There are a lot of considerations, of course.

I am not sure what it would look like, but I see it as being worth the time to explore. It was interesting that at Dandenong HS, the junior classes were the only ones with more integrated courses and their teachers did not also teach the senior subjects. Would teachers here be happy with this? They also had very regular meetings between teachers to agree on how they would team teach the students. Do schools have enough time to allow for this? I don't have any answers; I'm just bouncing ideas around to get them out of my head!

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