We love to organize things into boxes: black or white; red state or blue state; mustard or ketchup. We like to categorize subject matter, too, and teach it in discrete bits. We silo subjects. In one class period we teach one subject, followed by another subject in the following period. While subjects might be taught by the same teacher and in the same space, we never see their connections. We never see the links.
This teaching approach of simplification-by-isolation was created to make complex concepts more manageable. However, many topics cannot be put into one box. We have always lived in an interdisciplinary world, and the problems of the 21st century do not fall into boxes. It is time that we present these issues in some of their complex glory. If we do not teach our students complexity and how topics have unifying themes, when will they get the opportunity to exercise this muscle?
Siloed subjects help schools, but they really don't help our students. We need to smash these silos to integrate topics and show the linkages between them. We don't need to go whole hog initially, but we can certainly show how topics are linked every now and then. As training wheels, we can inject links occasionally. Then, as students gain proficiency, we can take the wheels off by focusing on a theme and pulling the main points from there. Integrating subjects is a good way to present new information. In fact, while writing my book Save Our Science, I found research that showed integrating subjects have numerous benefits. Students gain an increased understanding and retain what they learn longer; and this method improves the motivation to learn, too.1 Students are better able to solve new problems, and they can appreciate global dependencies and feel more connected as citizens. These skills emulate what is needed for success in the 21st century. An integrated approach strengthens muscles that siloed teaching could not.
A Learning Watering Hole
One question you might have is: "How do you apply these new ways of teaching to the standards?" There are many topics that can be taught by showing the interrelation and complexity of issues while still teaching the fundamentals and linking to the standards. A key topic in the 21st century is water. This is a challenge that our children will certainly have to face. The topic of water does not fall under just history, science, math, political science or economics -- it falls under all of them. As recently as 2012, The Economist2 wrote a special report entirely on water. Why not prepare students now for problems with complexity?
Let's provide children an opportunity to exercise their brains on broad and complex topics, and to look at the linkages. Water is a theme that can be a great way to get across STEM topics, and we can go way beyond the water cycle. There are topics such as fracking, hydroelectric power and desalinization -- issues that municipalities and governments deal with now. Topics do not need to be so heavy-handed. With water you can learn how to make a water bottle boat (and the associated physics of buoyancy and center of mass) or how to make the best sandcastle. (Hint: 1% water is best!)3 Topics can be fun, relevant, and taught -- literally -- in one's backyard. The table below shows a list of suggested STEM topics that are based on the topic of water:
Bonding in water molecules; phases of water; the water cycle; aquifers; how to make a perfect sandcastle; the science of fracking
How to make a water filter; how to turn water waves into energy; the desalinization of water; how to make a water lens
Make an underwater explorer; make a mini-irrigation system; make a boat with water bottles
Measuring the density of water; determine water resource percentages per country; make water consumption calculations
Water can be a means to teach global topics. This material may seem above what you might see in middle school. But my question is, "Why wait?" Such topics are far more engaging than the rote memorization of facts. And, by having information about the world stage, students become better citizens. The problems don't live in silos, so neither should our teaching. Smash the silos!
1Mathison, S. & Freeman, M. The Logic of Interdisciplinary Studies. (National Res. Center on English Learning & Achievement. University of Albany. State University of New York, 1998).
2The Economist For the Want of a Drink. (The Economist, London, 2012).
3Pakpour, M., Habibi, M., Moller, P. & Bonn, D. "How to Construct the perfect sandcastle." Scientific Reports 2 (2012).