Interdisciplinary Education? Let's Make It Anti-Disciplinary

Family Matters on 11.20.12
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Photo: C.P.Storm/Creative Commons

No matter whether your kids are homeschooled, faith schooled, state schooled or private schooled, there's probably one thing we can all agree on: the world has changed radically, and the education system should change along with it if it wants to stay relevant. 

That's the thinking behind the X Prize for Education, a cash prize aimed at spurring game changing innovation in our schools. It's also the thinking behind a fascinating piece (sent to me by the owners of my daughter's preschool!) by Nikhil Goyal, a senior at Syosset High School in Woodbury, New York, who writes about Why Learning Should Be Messy:

Can creativity be taught? Absolutely. The real question is: “How do we teach it?” In school, instead of crossing subjects and classes, we teach them in a very rigid manner. Very rarely do you witness math and science teachers or English and history teachers collaborating with each other. Sticking in your silo, shell, and expertise is comfortable. Well, it’s time to crack that shell. It’s time to abolish silos and subjects. Joichi Ito, director of the M.I.T. Media Lab, told me that rather than interdisciplinary education, which merges two or more disciplines, we need anti-disciplinary education, a term coined by Sandy Pentland, head of the lab’s Human Dynamics group.

The key differentiator, explains Goyal, between "interdisciplinary and anti-disciplinary education is that you don't just teach across different disciplines or reference others, but rather you approach a topic or a question in its entirety - seeing it first as the human challenge it represents, and then finding ways to understand and respond to it, much as you would in the "real world":

In practice, this means the elimination of English, mathematics, history, and science class. Instead, we need to arrange the curriculum around big ideas, questions, and conundrums. What does learning look like in this model? Letting kids learn by doing — the essence of the philosophy of educator John Dewey. He wrote: “The school must represent present life — life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.” Let kids travel to places, work with mentors, and inquire about the world around them.

It makes sense, because this is the world our children will live in. The days when our education system prepared us primarily to be efficient workers and/or repositories of knowledge are over. When you can get a specific piece of information at the touch of a button (or the swipe of a screen), accumulating raw knowledge becomes less and less valuable. Instead, we need adaptible, literate, systems thinkers who can solve problems, pose questions, and assess elements of a topic - be they philosophical, ethical, mathematical or scientific - as part of a larger whole. 

Check out the rest of Goyal's piece for 5 inspiring best practice examples of how we might make it happen.

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