Lenses, Not Silos

In the current incarnation of most high schools, classes are essentially silos of information that are not only specific to a discipline, but to a subset of information in that discipline. Not just science, but Biology. Not just mathematics, but Geometry. And so on. That creates a rigidity of thought in both student and teacher.

And while there is a lot of talk about interdisciplinarity these days, too often that just means that science teachers use some math in a project or an English class reads a Civil War novel while the US History teaches about the Reconstruction. But that misses the power and potential of what is possible when we see the intersections of our courses as more than just the occasional overlapping project.

As long as we continue to be bound by the regulations of teaching specific courses, we should strive for the idea of viewing our courses as lenses not silos. In this model, we learn science so that we can apply a scientific lens to the world around us. History becomes about case study and the tools of the historian to learn from a moment in time for what it holds for us now.

And then those tools can transcend the courses when students can ask real questions and solve real problems. This is what leads SLA students to analyze pollution trend data in a science class, overlaying socio-economic data with pollution data onto the map of Philadelphia and asking questions about what they find, or take on a local issue of importance to them in an English classroom and design and implement a direct action campaign to affect change. Or when they do real world data modeling in an Algebra I class, using variable manipulation to solve architecture problems and sports forecasts. Or write essays on identity in Spanish while designing masks that are representations of who they are.

And these projects are not specifically “interdisciplinary” in that they don’t have to be joint projects between two teachers. They are an ancillary benefit of teachers seeing themselves as teachers of kids before being teachers of subjects. It places the student use, application and transferral of the skills and information at a much higher priority than merely learning it. And you know its working when teachers no longer have to be the drivers of interdisciplinarity, rather students draw the connections between what they learn in different classes and bring their ideas to bear on the problems they want and need to solve.

Two ideas for schools to better structure for lens-driven classes:

  1. Stream students in courses, so that students take a group of courses as a cohort. At SLA, students take English, History and Science as a cohort in 9th through 11th grades, so that students and teachers work with the same group of students all year, thus increasing the likelihood that ideas will resonate across classes.
  2. Use grade-wide themes and essential questions as through-lines for students to come back to that are not specific to one discipline over another. At SLA, the 9th grade theme is Identity, the 10th grade is Systems, and the 11th grade theme is Change.

What are your ideas?

8 thoughts on “Lenses, Not Silos

  1. I’ve been lucky to teach in the Upper Primary grades, where we are not tied to one subject. One of my favorite things has been to do what you suggestion in #2: Use the same Essential Questions in multiple classes. One year, we explored “What does it mean to be free” from the lenses of literature, social studies (Civil War and Civil Rights), and Religion. Incredibly interesting. Older students would get even more after it :)

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  3. Terrific idea, I’m sad that there is only one comment in reply.

    I recommend looking at the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme or Primary Years Programme for examples of curriculum structure which tries to view subject areas as lenses (often unsuccessfully).

    It is probably worth asking – where do our delineations for what constitutes a subject come from? I mean, I know we have a set of curriculum to ‘cover’ for math, and so that helps define our math course, but where did we invent the idea of separating disciplines in the first place?

    If you look back more than a few hundred years, it is difficult to find people who called them exclusively mathematician’s. There were people who explored the world through whatever lens they could master, and pushed human knowledge as a result. Look at Leonardo da Vinci, for example, since most of his work is available online. I think his work would be a terrific example of someone who always viewed what he did through multiple lenses.

    • David – I agree completely. The Committee of Ten did much back in the late 1800s to create the structure of school that we still have today. In fact, much of the Common Core work of today could be seen as an update to that work. And what makes me so sad is that there seems to be little questioning of what has been lost with the “innovations” we see. Creating courses and disciplines probably did a great deal to forward the structure of high school at a time when formal schooling was exploding, but perhaps now is the time to ask — what did we lose?

      • I read through the Council of Ten Report when Bud Hunt dug out it’s full text as a PDF earlier, and it seems that they did not create these divisions in schools, they merely codified an existing process. It seems that schools had already started the process of specialization of teachers to a large degree, since each of the councils that formed were around a specific content area, taught by specialists of that content area.

        Notable, they recommended Greek and Latin continue to be taught since ‘these languages are a means through which much other knowledge can be learned’ (summarized). They also indicated that science should be taught through labs and observations since no other way makes sense to teach the greater idea of science, that the world is observable.

  4. Love the idea of building around the concept of sustainable communities that study, reflect and advocate for social, economic and environmental justice issues. This is the type of work that middle school students crave as they find themselves and their place in the community.

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  6. This entire post really resonated with me. I have the same philosophy regarding what the outcomes should be for the courses that students take: habits of mind. Your lens analogy is a perfect way of capturing this idea.

    When I was teaching in my mathematics classroom, I often told my students that I wasn’t teaching them math… I was teaching thinking. Mathematics happened to be the content vehicle I was using to do that. Even more recently, I’ve been working with elementary teachers to teach scientific inquiry (ie scientific thinking) using a unit on electricity. Series, parallel, switches, etc. aren’t the goals of the unit… observation, investigation and drawing conclusions are.

    Giving students these habits of mind, or habits of thinking, I believe is what is meant by “being a teacher of kids before being a teacher of subjects.” It means that you recognize that you aren’t teaching students content material, like math, for the purpose of turning them into a mathematician or because you’ve told them they are going to need some important formula one day in “real-life”.

    Rather, you are teaching them a way to approach real “real-life” situations using a skill set composed of various lenses that are far more valuable than some google-able pieces of information.

    Only two questions though: “Why have you chosen to leave math out of your cohorts at SLA?” and “Do the math classes participate in the grade-wide themes as well?”