21 September 2022

Interdisciplinary School Subject (IDS): The point is to do inquiry based learning



Holistic Think Tank recently awarded a research grant to Fab Lab Foundation for creating a new interdisciplinary subject. Today we are joined by Monika Aring and Larry Hulbert from Fab Lab Foundation. The topic of our conversation will be the interdisciplinary subject (the abbreviation IDS).

Monika Aring is an Independent Consultant, Senior Policy Advisor for Fab Foundation and FHI 360 (former). She helped design and launch a recent initiative to reimagine workforce policies responding to disruptive technologies. Ms. Aring has 35 years’ experience working for many international donor organisations, foundations, and corporations to develop multi-stakeholder programmes that produce needed workforce skills and better jobs in 50+ countries throughout Asia, Central Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the US. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Brooklyn College, and has a Master’s degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Ms Aring participated in leadership development programmes at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. 

Larry Hulbert is a Senior Advisor with Fab Foundation, FHI 360 and Aravind Eye Institute in India. He has 50 years of experience in international development with the WHO, major universities, and policymakers. With a focus on healthcare and education in Africa and Southeast Asia, and introduced, facilitated and supported major change initiatives to improve basic healthcare services and educational programmes. Mr. Hulbert is experienced in strategic planning, leadership training, teacher training, curriculum development and programme evaluation. Consulting clients have included heads of state, government ministries, university vice-chancellors and corporate leaders. He holds an undergraduate degree from DePauw University (Magna Cum Laude), and a graduate degree from Northwestern University

What does IDS mean for you? How do you understand it? 

Larry: Well, how I understand it in fact relates to my own education. When I was young, all of my courses, both in high school and when I was an undergraduate student and then a postgraduate student, were taught as single subjects, even in the social sciences. I found it frustrating because I wanted to understand sociology and how it affected what I was learning in psychology or anthropology. I had to go to separate professors and separate courses. I kept wondering as a younger student why the social scientists didn’t talk to each other, why they didn’t develop courses together, because there was so much overlap. When we are talking about psychology, we focus on the individual, but individuals form groups, and as soon as we have a group we are talking about sociology, and then when we are looking at connections over time we are talking about anthropology. 

So for me, it’s very satisfying to be working on a project that takes interdisciplinarity as a fundamental way to both organize and teach very important subjects as one subject. This helps students learn and discover the connections, instead of treating subjects independently in little silos. 

Monika: I think that is what got me excited about this project –  the interdisciplinary subject. My field of interest has been the employment of young people and how countries develop their workforces. Work doesn’t show up in the form of a math problem, or a science problem, or a reading problem, or a history problem; work shows up as a challenge, a task, that you have to fulfill. And in order to be able to fulfill it you are forced to integrate all those different things. So, if you have a project, — let’s say you have to write a report — you need some math in order to show statistical correlations, and you need some writing skills, and you need to have analytical skills, and you need to have a curiosity to make sure you look into all of the different parts. Life is interdisciplinary. You know, since the fourteen hundreds in the Middle Ages thank God the churches preserved knowledge, it was the job of the Church, so they created separate silos, and that became the tradition of universities, but it was divorced from real life. So I think interdisciplinarity is essential. And I have had the fortune of spending a year and a half in the Waldorff school where the education was interdisciplinary, so I got the taste of it.  

What kind of methodology can we use in the context of IDS? 

Monika: I think that the methodology that we use based on my experience makes a lot of sense. Our methodology involves project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, not forcing the subject down somebody’s throat, but rather reaching the outcome in inquiry. In Sweden, I saw a high school that was inside a science and technology incubator in a city outside Stockholm. There was a university in the incubator, little businesses, science, technology and innovation in the incubator, and in the back corner was a gimnasium (a high school). And the high school lessons were taking place. I said: “But I don’t see any desks”,  they said: “We don’t need desks, we have tables where students work together”. And I said: “What are they working on, where did they get their projects?”. They replied: “From the companies, companies give us problems to solve, and students solve them, and in the process they learn all the IT skills they need”. So I think that’s the way to go about this project based learning. 

Larry: Absolutely. You know, so much traditional education involves memorizing factual information and getting the right answer on some test, but what Monika is saying is that life doesn’t appear that way, life appears as problems, as tests, as jobs to do. And to be successful in completing those tests or doing those jobs we have to draw upon various subjects and apply that learning. So for us, taking the project based approach for this IDS course is the only thing that makes sense, because it is about application — applying skills, competences, knowledge in solving problems. And sometimes getting the right answer becomes less important than the inquiry process and what you learn. Or in fact sometimes feeling and seeing what it was that got in the way of you being successful in solving a problem becomes far more valuable, and students remember that experience more than separate bits of factual information for a test. Soon after a test students forget everything, I saw this so often while teaching. Even medical students: they study for an exam, and one month later, if you ask them a question while walking around the hospital, they have no answer, because they had studied for the exam rather than studied for life. 

Interdisciplinary school subject by fabfoundation (Episode 6)

Holistic Think Tank recently awarded a research grant to Fab Lab Foundation for creating a new interdisciplinary subject. Today we are joined by Monika Aring and Larry Hulbert from Fab Lab Foundation. The topic of our conversation is the interdisciplinary subject (IDS), its implementation and education reform.

Interdisciplinary school subject by fabfoundation (Episode 6)

Holistic Think Tank recently awarded a research grant to Fab Lab Foundation for creating a new interdisciplinary subject. Today we are joined by Monika Aring and Larry Hulbert from Fab Lab Foundation. The topic of our conversation is the interdisciplinary subject (IDS), its implementation and education reform.

What would you like to achieve by implementing IDS in schools? 

Larry: Well, I think this is something that we as a team have been asking ourselves since we first started working on this project. We began thinking about what we would do after successfully completing this phase, what would happen next. And we have very strong, I think, opinions and recommendations about implementation, because we recognize that implementing a course like this at least in the US education system in public schools is a critical distinction. Monika made reference to Waldorf school as one of the private schools we have in Europe as well. But we’ve focused on our instructions as we understand them. We are looking at public education, and implementing new courses in the public education system in the US is really challenging. This can be more easily accomplished in developing countries, where there is one central education ministry that establishes a curriculum for every elementary or secondary school. We don’t have that system in the US, we don’t have a centralized department of education that establishes one curriculum. If that was the case we could focus on the federal level and lobby the authorities to include a course like IDS. Ever since we completed our syllabus we have been asking ourselves the question: how can we begin to get teachers interested in it? In fact, the strategy we have undertaken is to develop the syllabus using not only our Fab Lab teachers but also what we have called the designed team of elementary primary school teachers. But the reason why we are focused on elementary school teachers is because they are virtually helping build and design this IDS course. And we think that the second phase of this project is a very critical phase. But this really needs to be a pilot test in which the teachers can gain experience delivering the IDS course to students. So we try to plan ahead and say OK, if we select teachers to design the course with us, they will be more able to say they have something at stake, a piece of honorship, if you will, because in this course we reflect their thinking in terms based on the ten competences that HTT identified, based on the project approach that we’ve used as a foundation and a much more student centered approach to the course as opposed to a teacher centered approach. So that is the strategy that we have in mind as we look ahead to implementation. We also think that organizing some teacher training, workshops and sessions will be a critical strategy to both introduce the IDS course and give teachers something they can themselves include as a part of their teaching in the elementary school.

Monika: I totally agree with Larry, there’s just one thing that I would like to add. In US public schools, where the majority of students still study, all the innovation and education is happening outside of the schoolroom, in after-school programmes. So there has been some research done looking at where innovation is happening, and it is not happening in the schools, it’s happening after schools. That makes us worry, that’s a concern, so some students may get some afterschool experience and some may not. We have 2500 Fab Labs around the world, Fab Lab makes spaces that are linked to each other and to MIT, so they share knowledge, they share information, and they share resources, IDS. Each Fab Lab is an opportunity for young people, children also to learn how to make stuff. When you are making stuff you can make it alone or you can do it in a group, so the opportunity to learn competences in the process of making something I think is a really important opportunity. Because as you make something you have to learn many of the competences that IDS has developed, because you have to design together, you have to be curious, you have to solve problems, you have to learn how to appreciate differences — you have to do so many things when you make something. I think that Fab Labs are a fantastic opportunity to spread this innovative project based learning outside of the classroom. Now those places where we can combine classroom learning with learning in the Fab Lab are ideal, because there ten young people not only learn the competencies through the IDS, but also learn the technology that they need to be successful in the 21st century, because it’s a digital century.

Can the reform of the school be carried out from the bottom up?

Monika: I don’t think so. Larry and I are both very interested in systems and how systems function. So you have different actors in the system that are producing student education. One actor is the ministry of education, another actor is the university. Now, the universities are very important actors, because they train the teachers, and they also get money from the ministries. So one thing we have to look at is how the money flows, because what gets paid for gets done. So you’ve got ministries, universities, and then you’ve got teachers and local administrative bodies. In the US there are individual school districts, in other countries it’s organized differently, but still you often have local intermediaries. Students and parents are not part of the money flow. I will put parents aside, because they are paying the taxes, and taxes go to the ministry. It is a radical strategy for parents to force the ministry to change its financing. Who does the ministry listen to? That’s a really interesting question. Do they listen to parents? I am not sure. They do listen to business, maybe. I am not sure, these are the things to look at. The point is that this is a system composed of several actors, and if you want to make change, you have to make change involving all of these actors. You have to bring them together in order to make change possible, because you can change the ministry, but if you don’t change how the teacher is being trained, nothing happens. It is all connected, interdisciplinary. You have to work with a system, not just with one part of it.

In what direction should school and education reform go in such situations?

Monika: I think they should do what Finland did. To my mind Finland did the best job. So you can compare Finland and Singapore. The bigger context is innovation, the future economic development of countries — how they get income, how people secure their livelihoods, how they produce tax revenue. Really it’s going to come from innovation, not traditional manufacturing, that’s over.  So how do you build a citizenry that can innovate, that’s the question for many, many countries to ask themselves. That is why they are interested in Fab Labs, for example. So to get an innovation-ready population you have to really change the education system which was designed for traditional manufacturing jobs, or service jobs, or jobs which were known, which you just did, and which you followed like at an assembly line.

What is Singapore doing? (I have not looked in the last two years, so probably things have changed). You know, every country wants to do well in math and science, to achieve top results in the PISA and TIMSS tests. Singapore takes an approach of drilling, and the result is a huge industry that’s grown up of tutors who prepare students to get top grades, so they can get into the top universities, have the best life etc. In Finland it’s quite different. I believe they don’t focus that much on testing. School happens in Finland for high school students in the afternoon. In the morning they learn on an ipad, they get all the course subjects that they need, that you have to drill and train, that’s delivered over the internet. There is no reason to have one teacher for twenty students when the same thing can be delivered to a thousand students. So in the morning there are lectures on the internet, and afternoon students have to work on interdisciplinary projects in their area of interest — they have arts and humanities, they have health, science and technology, they have different interest areas. And the projects have been very carefully selected for the acquisition of competencies of the kind that you are talking about in HTT. I think the Finland model is a brilliant model, but it requires very different training for teachers. Teacher training is essential, isn’t it Larry?

Larry: It really is. I think it’s the whole core of the idea, because the course itself unless we are going to deliver a 100% online course is going to be dependent upon teachers with some different skills. When they typically have been trained and utilized as classroom teachers the emphasis has been so havely delivering information, historically, and much of teacher training at least in this country. Aand in the country where I worked havely emphasizes teacher in that role of delivering information to students, and typically using so called “chalk and talk” that is one way to be referred to, but in the developing world it’s quite literally the case. I saw in the elementary classes in Uganda where there was a black board, and students sat on the ground and the teacher began delivering the “chalk and talk” lessons of the day. We are talking about something that is really quite different. The teachers in the Finish system  flipped the school day for students. So, they utilize online learning to get the necessary information in a very efficient way, then in the afternoon they can draw upon those problems, apply them that they have been given. So now for teachers in the traditional classroom emphasizing the delivering of the information and less quantable less experience in actually facilitating asking questions that promote an inquiry. The difference between: tell me the history of Poland – when Poland was established sovereign nations and students raise their hand and they give a year when Poland was. A different speech when we were asking questions that are sort a single right answer versus saying to students: ok, your project you have been selected you gonna build a birdhouse out and students say :”yes”. And students start to ask the series of questions: this bird, particular, speeches of the bird. Have you thought about that? What do you think will be important for birds? You begin guiding an inquiry, critical thinking, you are not interested in that single answer, the correct answer, you are interested in the thought process and shaping that thought process and digging down into students’ thinking and the reasoning: why did you choose this particular kind of bird? We have very few of them here, let’s say in Seattle. Why did you choose this bird? So, reasoning, critical thinking, creativity. These are the competencies that we are really trying to cultivate.  We know from research that it requires a different approach on a part of the teacher that is much more directed at inquiry, curiosity, problem solving and sustaining that problem solving rather than going for a single correct answer and then to be satisfied. So the teacher training implications for us are very significant. 

IDS means an interdisciplinary approach to all subjects. Is it possible to have an interdisciplinary approach combining for example physics and literature or should we think about individual blocks of subjects like literature and letters, math and technology, and life orientation?

Monika: We will select the projects based on the competencies which project allows us to inquire about those competencies. What kind of projects? If you want to combine physics and literature you might ask what kind of project would require a student to combine both physics and literature, what kind of inquiry. What questions will be engaged in it? So, to move outside of the box of the subject, you have to go beyond and say where, how in the world it may be combined, and what questions will combine them. And I can think of the many ways to combine them.

Larry: What Monika is describing, is a capstone project of the IDS course, and an example of what we both are very interested in is asking students to design the community where they would like to leave some day. To answer that question you could inquire into what the buildings look like, what the governing of that community look like, who will be designed for – be designed just for younger people or a diverse population? What will sustain that community economically, how the people support themselves, how with healthcare, what will the education system look like? Do you see? You start with design the community you would like to life in and answering the questions, that are quite diverse questions, you have to look a number of skills, you might even go and ask students to go and interview people in the community where they are living currently, to learn from them, and interview people from different age groups. So the inquiry process can draw upon different subjects and then they actually could be asked to construct a model of this community. Now here is math and science using computer software they are coming to play and actually building a model of this community, a physical model of it. So you have to begin to see there are different subjects that can be incorporated in this process. Depending upon what you want to emphasize. 

Monika: Plus, if you have a physics teacher and history teacher and they will collaborate and they said what kind of project they could have that will reflect, that will force how young people learn both physics and history in a new way. Let’s say that you could invent a project like designing the community where you want to live in it. In a history course you present a history part, in the physics course you might present the physics part. The point is to do inquiry based learning very different from what teachers are used to doing. Your number one challenge is not to have a course delivered only, your number one challenge is how to build the capacity of teachers to do this kind of thing. 

Thank you very much indeed for sharing your thoughts with us. 

Listen to the full version of the interview in our podcast!