A curriculum built on the fundamental questions of our disciplines

As we make plans for how we will engage our students in their learning the decisions we make become fundamental to how they will grow to understand the purposes of learning. How our learners approach the curriculum and the disciplines is fundamental to the outcomes we may achieve for them. One path will set them up to view learning as the acquisition of information the other to see it as a process of asking and exploring questions of significance through the many unique lenses.

Our curriculum is simultaneously diverse, rich and overcrowded. There is a great deal that we need to teach, much that we might want to teach and then many chapters that we are obliged to teach. It is easy to see the curriculum as a collection of independent disciplines, each with its own body of knowledge and each functioning apart from the others. An expert in Science has at their fingertips many scientific facts. The Historian knows many dates and happenings from the past, the Geographer knows the names of all the major landforms. The Mathematician has mastered the four operations and is a whiz with their table facts. The common element for the learner engaging with each discipline is that success comes from the accumulation of the required body of knowledge. 

This approach to knowledge accumulation is the hallmark of traditional educational systems and is the norm of learning for students from the time they enter Kindergarten to the time they exit with their first degree. Even where supposedly progressive approaches such as problem, inquiry or project-based learning are adopted often the focus continues to be upon this accumulation of knowledge. Students in this model don’t ‘do’ science, history, geography etc., they acquire a particular set of facts. There is often little opportunity for students to understand what it is that the disciplines are really about or what it is that an expert in any field does. 

We break this pattern when we shift our approach from one that asks, 'what does a scientist know?’ to one that begins with ‘what questions does a scientist ask?’. When we approach the curriculum and its disciplines in such a manner we begin to see them not as a pool of knowledge to be acquired but as lenses through which to view and understand the world. By providing our students opportunities to explore the most fundamental questions that lie at the heart of the disciplines they study, we allow them to see learning in an entirely new way. 

This is not to suggest a reframing of the curriculum’s dot points as a laundry list of questions such as ‘what is the difference between an acid and a base?’ or ‘who was the first Prime Minister?’. Our goal here is to seek to find and deploy the most fundamental questions that are at the heart of each discipline; the origin questions which define the discipline.

For a Historian the fundamental questions to be explored might be distilled to; ‘What happened and who was involved?', 'When did it happen?’, 'Why did it happen then?’ and ‘What might we learn from this?’. Such a set of fundamental questions encourage the world to be looked at through the eyes of the historian and allow our students to step into the world of a historian. 

A Geographer is likely to begin with a somewhat different set of questions. Luke Doran of Mosman Prep shared the three eloquent and fundamental questions he asks as a Geographer; ‘What is there?’, ‘Why there?’ and ‘Why care?’ to which one could add ‘Who cares?’. When seen through the lens of these questions Geography becomes a tool for understanding the physical world that we occupy and the forces which shape it. A Scientist would likely ask questions like ‘What do I notice?’, ‘What happens when . . .?’, ‘How might I explain what I have noticed?’ and ‘How might I prove my explanation?’. 

When reduced to their most fundamental questions we see that the disciplines have more in common than we might imagine otherwise. Each is about developing explanations for what we observe in the world. Each discipline is a sense-making process with a unique focus on particular parts of the world. Each provides us with an alternate perspective and by exploring the world through multiple lenses we develop a richer more nuanced understanding. The greatest power of an approach that sees the disciplines as a lens for understanding the world comes when we apply multiple lenses to a single data set. When we provide our students opportunities to analyse a concept through the lens of a scientist, and a geographer and a historian we empower them as sense-makers armed with a diverse set of tools. 

Such an approach can be seen within the NSW Science and Technology Syllabus where students are asked to engage in Scientific Thinking. The syllabus describes the actions of the Scientific Thinker as:

'A scientific thinker raises questions and problems, observes and gathers data, draws conclusions based on evidence, tests conclusions, thinks with an open mind and communicates research findings appropriately.' (NESA Science & Technology K-6)

This is a broad approach that separates the act of doing science and using science as a lens for understanding from the knowledge base of the scientist. 

The Science and Technology syllabus additionally invites students to engage in Design, Systems and Computational Thinking with each mode of thinking providing a unique way of understanding the world. While each mode of thinking could be dealt with in splendid isolation as has been the norm with our traditional disciplines, a better approach is to encourage students to apply multiple lenses to the concepts with which they will engage. Students will need to develop the skills and awareness to evaluate and apply the most appropriate lens or lenses and we all need to understand that there are a multitude of perspectives to be explored.

When we see the disciplines and other modes of thinking as lenses for understanding the world we are able to break down the artificial silos that we have created. Once we move beyond a discipline as a discrete knowledge set we are able to see how each discipline brings value to our understanding across diverse contexts and concepts. By acknowledging the role that multiple disciplines might play in informing our understanding we open the door to true interdisciplinary learning.