I don’t feel old; I feel “experienced”!

In a blog post by Ben Johnson published this morning in Edutopia http://www.edutopia.org/blog/cross-curricular-teaching-deeper-learning-ben-johnson, there was a call for deeper learning (interesting term, isn’t it — I used to think I understood it, but not so sure anymore — I don’t know that learning should be so much about depth as it is connection, but that’s for another day). Johnson’s article was entitled “Deeper Learning: Why Cross-Curricular Teaching is Essential”.

If you have been following my blogs you know that my first reaction was to the word “teaching”. I find it to be a huge leap to go from cross-curricular teaching to deeper learning given the challenge of even a simple teaching=learning equation. Silly me, right? For instance, he lists requirements for Deep Learning, including engagement of the whole student and teacher; the need for enthusiastic partners; intensive preparation (first overt bleeding from learning to teaching); assessment that mirrors learning (but again this was all from the point of view of what the teacher should do); and finally, collaboration.

But let’s leave the requirements and look at the phases of teacher collaboration needed. These revolve around “alignment, cooperation, and conceptual”

Alignment — suggestion was that teachers “wade” in the same direction as their colleagues. As an example, he suggested that the English and Social Studies teachers have DBQ’s that count in both classes. Wow, great idea! It really is! Problem is that it ignores the realities of most high schools that I’ve been in or worked with. It’s hard enough to cooperate with one other teacher, but you multiply the challenge exponentially when you add in more. How many English and Social Studies teachers share exactly the same students? Perhaps in a very small school but not in many I know. And it might be possible to keep pace with one colleague for deadlines on papers, but it blows up when you add in others. If you’ve taught a high school Social Studies or English class (and I’ve taught both), you know what I mean. Also add in the 3 kids that are in the same Social Studies class, but are in different “levels” of English class with different requirements. Still too easy? Then throw in a school with block scheduling and you get kids who aren’t even taking English and Social Studies at the same time. Like I said, it’s a great idea!

Cooperative — The example here is the math and science teacher who get together and decide the best way to teach motion. Then you find out that only 75% of the kids are in the same math class and the same science class. And you find out that “motion” in the science class can “only” be taught at a certain point in the curriculum — and that’s because the math teacher was coordinating with the social studies teacher to talk about population migration and its tie to transportation speed changes across civilizations, etc. etc. Once again, great idea!

Finally is Johnson’s plea for conceptual collaboration. The example here is the science and art teachers working together. Pigment and light are functions of “wavelength, “electromagnetic spectrum and the dual nature of light.” Terrific! Now comes the kid who is in one class and not the other (art is an “elective” in most high schools, after all). The student now demands why they have to know and do “all this art stuff” in science class. “It’s fine for John, he’s taking art, but I’m not, so what good is it going to do me?” My hearty congrats to the teacher who can convince that student at a deep level of the value of expanding his art experiences, even though his interest in art was squashed by his 6th grade teacher. It really is a great idea. It really does make sense to do it that way. It really would help students learn better. It’s a great idea.

Reading Johnson’s article is inspiring, especially the conclusion! I loved it. But this is where I don’t feel “old”, I don’t feel jaded, I just feel “experienced”. My local system tried to incorporate interdisciplinary learning in a variety of ways at both high schools. We tried different models, different teams, different configurations. We had the greatest success with teams of 4 9th grade teachers who shared the same students, but even then it was a real challenge and it was still often connections across silos. Connections, yes, but silos remained.

So what can we do? First of all, learn from each other. Even our “failures” led to better efforts. I wish there were a place to go where schools could openly discuss what they had tried that did NOT work! I look at these “failures” as part of the learning process and I think their real value comes only in their sharing and analysis.

Another tactic is to start giving the learner more responsibility for developing cross-curricular learning. This means starting with the learner and his/her experience and interests and helping them go from that individual starting point to the standards or learning objectives. It is the opposite of the teacher (or team of teachers) choosing the objectives, the content, the timing and the assessment and then teaching them to the student.

When examining the delicate balance between control and responsibility we must figure out thoughtful ways to support the shift if we are ever to reach Johnson’s goal of making students thirsty enough for learning that they will give in to their inborn thirst for knowledge. It’s a great idea.

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