Shred The Class Schedule: An Interdisciplinary Education Mandate

Subjects in Primary school make no sense.    There is no reason to teach history separate from English, separate from library, separate from drama or choir.   Nor is there a benefit to separating science from math from art from geography. Subject matter blocks of time in schools stem from a general preference for “expertise” that is becoming outdated and fails to integrate the learning experience.

Why not teach math through costume or set design or via a class in the “business of cooking?”   In other words, teach applied math.  Why not teach English via history texts and via “dissecting” the words of particularly well-written choral songs like our National Anthem?  The beautiful music would be enrichment of the “soul” and children would walk away from “chorus” having focused not only on pitch but on the history, passion and philosophy of the American Revolution*, and the definition of the words “ramparts” and “gallantly” and “perilous."   Of course, then they would not actually be walking out of “chorus” as a subject.   It would be harder, in my proposed scenario, to argue against the budget for music.  On the other hand – and I think this is good – one might not get away with being solely a “music teacher.”   Again, expertise that cannot be applied more broadly is dated.

This is not to say that teaching via a true isolating of the core elements of a skill is unnecessary;.just the opposite.   The most effective teaching introduces concepts broken down to their simplest component parts and this argues for introducing math as math.   However, introduction is being taken for granted as the whole “shebang.”   Applied practice is where most school time should be spent if we are serious about 21st century skills.

We are starting to acknowledge that we want to teach children how to “think” and, further, to think in an interdisciplinary sense. This was not always the case. . . for a period the United States was enamored with the Asian educational systems.   However, teaching to “think”, particularly interdisciplinary thinking, is not a particular goal of the Asian education systems in recent memory and it has fallen by the wayside in the American system, though there are “currents” building to bring it back here.    One example is Yale’s current effort, recently profiled on the cover of Barron’s, to build a new truly interdisciplinary liberal arts University. . . in Singapore! In the article, the new system is characterized as one that will “hopefully move us from a system that is now world-renowned for students who answer set questions well to one that produces students who want to start asking the right questions to produce solutions to complex problems.”

We want to educate “dot connectors,” meaning people who can extrapolate particularly well from pieces of information, across subjects, to form a coherent whole framework.   In education or in the job training sector, generalist thinking, as described in one guise in a well-read Harvard Business Review article, is called “transferability of knowledge or skills.”   It should seem obvious.   But it is not.   The Boston Globe focused again on testing this weekend in light of the new computer based PARCC being introduced to take the place of the MCAS.   Joanna Weiss, columnist, posed this: “[H]ere’s a different dream experiment I’d love to see: Forbid schools from giving any test prep or drills. Just let teachers teach — and surprise their students with PARCC one day, as if it’s another pop quiz. If the curriculum is working and the test is well designed, the students should do fine.”

Ms. Weiss is exactly right. If we had true applied knowledge and transferability of knowledge as our main objective in school, test questions need never be “prepped”… they integrate seamlessly into applied learning.

People resist change to the status quo.   Cost is an issue at the forefront of all major investments in change.   In my experience, answers all come down to the formulation of the question.   Here is one that I tackle regularly with parents: You can ask, “Can we afford to invest in school for our child?”   Or, in a City with a largely failing public school system like Boston, you can ask, “Can we afford not to invest in school for our child?”

Similarly, I ask, “Can America afford not to challenge an outdated “silo” approach to teaching in an interconnected world where transferability of knowledge and skills is everything?”   The things of which we are most proud as a nation are our entrepreneurial skills, democratic institutions (which require an impassioned and thinking electorate), and overall high quality of life (which requires decent GDP per capita and goes right back to that entrepreneurialism.)   These are in jeopardy unless teaching changes with the changing times.   It is time to throw out “subjects.”

Kristen Mansharamani, author, holds a BA from Yale University in Ethics, Politics and Economics and a JD from Harvard Law School.   She is the Founder of Torit Montessori School in Boston where the ideas expressed herein are not mere ideas but are the curriculum.

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* Our National Anthem was actually written after the War of 1812 but we introduce it in elementary school in the context of fighting for a belief system and “revolution.”

**Vikram Mansharamani, who wrote All Hail The Generalist for HBR, is my husband.  Professionally, we approach different issues but with similar viewpoints...likely better for the marriage than the same issues with very different views, n’est pas?