Interdisciplinary Learning in Schools

The RSE has published an advice paper setting out the actions and conditions needed to support interdisciplinary learning (IDL) in Scotland’s schools.

This takes forward the discussion and learning from last year’s RSE conference, Interdisciplinary Learning: Creative Thinking for a Complex World.

IDL is crucially important to addressing current and future societal challenges, including climate change. While IDL is one of the most distinctive and innovative features of Curriculum for Excellence, it has not yet been widely developed in our schools.

The advice paper covers: what is IDL, including its connection to disciplines; why it is important; the challenges to implementing it in our schools, including distinct issues for primary and secondary schools; how challenges can be addressed through leadership and support, assessment approaches, the provision of high-quality guidance and exemplification, teachers’ career-long professional learning and development; and the importance of research and evaluation to improving our understanding of IDL and its impact on learning.

While the advice paper focuses on IDL in schools, IDL development is a systemic challenge that requires a coordinated and strategic response across primary, secondary, further and higher education.

Paper summary

Interdisciplinary learning (IDL)is a way of learning and thinking that draws on knowledge and understanding from two or more disciplines in order to gain new knowledge and skills, understand issues, and explain or solve problems that are beyond the scope of any single subject. This is becoming increasingly important as the most significant challenges, advances, innovations and discoveries in the world today and envisaged in the future are at the interface of disciplines, including climate change, globalisation, sustainability, demographic change and digitalisation. Scottish education at all levels needs to reflect these interlinked realities. IDL must be grounded in disciplinary knowledge and understanding since it is the disciplines that give structure and rigour to the development and understanding of knowledge. Without the disciplinary ‘pillars’, the interdisciplinary ‘lintels’ will fall.

IDL is one of the most distinctive and innovative features of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). Despite IDL being an explicit context for learning within CfE, it has not yet been widely developed in our schools. The lack of conceptual clarity about what constitutes IDL is the most pressing issue to be addressed if IDL is to be fully realised and embedded within Scottish school education. It is crucially important that there is a shared understanding among teachers of what IDL is.

The launch of the refreshed CfE narrative provides a timely means of clarifying IDL and raising its profile among teachers and school leaders. To do so, the refreshed narrative will need to be accompanied by resources and support to help translate IDL into practical reality. For its part, the RSE is coordinating the establishment of a practitioner-led, principally online forum on IDL that will support professional dialogue and collaborative professional development among teachers and teacher educators, as well as the development, sharing and curation of high-quality practical IDL resources.

The Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs)in collaboration with teachers, school leaders and teacher educators have a very important role in supporting IDL. The RICs can bring to bear expertise, capacity and resources that extend beyond those available within individual local authorities. The RICs could be very well placed to help embed IDL within curriculum practice by providing clear and practical guidance, supporting collaborative approaches and developing meaningful learning networks. To achieve this, all of the RICs should build collaborative relationships with teacher educators in Scotland’s Schools of Education.

The assessment of IDL is a major, complex challenge and it is one that will have to be addressed if IDL is to feature prominently in school education. Clear criteria will be required about what it is within IDL that will be assessed. IDL does not easily lend itself to straightforward assessment and creative assessment methods will need to be researched and developed to support its delivery.

The subject-based National Qualification courses and assessments are a barrier to the development of IDL within secondary schools. The Scottish Baccalaureate, which includes an interdisciplinary project, is the only SQA qualification that formally recognises IDL. This means that the vast majority of learners will receive very limited, if any, exposure to formally recognised IDL within the senior phase of CfE. The RSE recommend that SQA should take forward the commitment made by Dr Janet Brown, then SQA Chief Executive, at the RSE IDL conference to explore how IDL can be introduced at an earlier stage of the senior phase qualifications.

While the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) Professional Standards for Registration recognise that teachers need to be able to develop IDL, there is a need to clarify how the Standards operate in practice to ensure that IDL is understood by all teachers and actively incorporated into their classroom practice. The RSE recommend that the GTCS should use its current review of the Standards to ensure that IDL is included in the Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning. This would go some way to ensuring that engagement with IDL is embedded within Professional Review and Development and Professional Update processes. Independent academic research and evaluation are needed in order to generate a fuller understanding of IDL implementation and its impact on learners. The Scottish Government’s Research Strategy for Scottish Education provides a framework for supporting potential research into IDL. As a distinctive and innovative, yet not fully understood aspect of CfE, the RSE strongly believe that research into IDL in Scottish education should be prioritised by the strategy.

While this advice paper focuses on IDL at school, IDL understanding, development and implementation is a systemic challenge requiring a coordinated response across Scotland’s education and skills system, including further and higher education.