The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Creative thinking for a complex world

Professor Colin Graham, of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), investigates developments in interdisciplinary learning.

With the rapid change of the 21st century comes many uncertainties and challenges – from climate change, environmental degradation, pandemics and the automation of jobs to social, political, financial and economic instabilities. This is the world to which Scotland’s education system – schools, colleges and universities – must quickly adapt if its young people are to thrive.

The most significant innovations and discoveries are now being made at the interfaces between disciplines. Jobs are becoming project-driven rather than subject (or discipline)-driven, typically requiring team approaches involving the collaborative engagement of specialists and generalists.

Recruiters are increasingly seeking to employ those with breadth of knowledge, skills and problem-solving capabilities rather than subject specialists, yet our education system is still largely geared to producing specialists. Concerns have also been raised within Scotland and the UK more generally about narrowing of the curriculum and subject choice. New interdisciplinary ways of learning and thinking are needed to create solutions to these many challenges. 

Raising the profile of IDL

While Interdisciplinary Learning (IDL) is one of the four contexts for learning of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), it has not yet been widely developed and implemented. For these reasons, the RSE chose IDL as the theme for its first annual education conference in January, bringing together teachers and lecturers, learners (including young people), policy-makers, influencers and employers. The conference combined insights from leading national and international figures with practical wisdom and experience from Scotland.

A key aim of the conference was to explore – through a wide range of plenary and workshop sessions – the nature, relevance and practical development of IDL and the challenges and opportunities that arise. 

A major challenge for IDL development in Scotland has been the lack of a common understanding of what constitutes IDL, not helped by the lack of clear published guidance. This was borne out by responses to our questionnaire, in which practitioners identified “conflicting understandings of what IDL is” as one of their greatest challenges.

The articulation of a clear understanding of IDL for teachers, learners and parents, supported by exemplification of good practice, remain top priorities for IDL development.

Questionnaire respondents identified many other challenges to IDL implementation. For primary teachers’ assessment of IDL, a lack of confidence and of subject knowledge, and time and support were considered to be major obstacles. For secondary teachers, challenges included timetabling, persuading other staff of the value of IDL, finding time and space to collaborate with other subject/curriculum areas and a focus on exams to meet the perceived demands of higher education. Among secondary teachers there was also a perception that higher education doesn’t value IDL.

How to integrate IDL

How is IDL to be encouraged in a subject-dominated and exam-driven environment in the senior phase? Dr Janet Brown, outgoing Chief Executive of SQA, commented that the education system needs to collectively consider what it wants to deliver, how it will be delivered and how it fits into post-school destinations. We need specialists, but we don’t need everyone to be specialists and we do need problem-solvers. IDL is embedded within the project component of the Scottish Baccalaureate, which has a small uptake nationally. SQA is considering how it can promote more widely the IDL project as a standalone qualification, which also allows students to work with organisations beyond schools, and is investigating how IDL might be introduced earlier in the national qualifications.

In response to a question about what external support would help to enhance IDL development, secondary teachers sought exemplification of IDL, external guidance supported by professional learning, and a shift in emphasis away from “the chase for exam grades”. Primary teachers also recognised the need for professional development and sharing of good practice.

What happens next?

An IDL working group at the RSE is preparing an Advice Paper on IDL development in Scottish Education.  There is an emerging view that real progress in IDL development, in response to the energy and enthusiasm generated by the conference, should involve professional learning, with teacher educators working together with forward-thinking school leaders to pilot the development of IDL understanding, thinking and learning, with collaboration and support with and from higher education, further education, business and industry. The developing Regional Improvement Collaboratives might provide an appropriate regional context for this direction of development.

A group of practitioners expressed an interest through the questionnaire in participating in a teacher-led IDL forum or network through which collaboration, for example via the online sharing of ideas, questions, resources and initiatives, might be shared. Other teacher networks have been successfully established in recent years, which differ in having natural homes and support within subject specialisms. How this might best be developed for IDL – and by whom – is currently under discussion. Further responses from practitioners would be welcome.

Leading the way

An excellent example of good practice in IDL development was presented in a recent article for Teaching Scotland (‘Breaking down the walls’, Issue 79) which detailed the secondary curriculum at St Margaret’s Academy in Livingston, where teachers under the leadership of Greg McDowall (a conference workshop leader) have become co-creators of an interdisciplinary curriculum.

The challenge now is how to create the means by which this and similar forward-thinking good practice, together with the many exemplar IDL resources and ideas represented by the conference posters, can be captured, evaluated and shared.

Further reading

The conference report and outcomes, including IDL exemplification are available on the RSE website.