The RSGS Education Committee is hosting a series of webinars, providing a forum for raising awareness of the proposed changes to Scottish Education, and facilitating discussion around different aspects of these changes. The first of these took place in October and focused on the proposed Scottish Diploma of Achievement (SDA) and in particular the opportunities and challenges this might hold for Geography. A report on this can be found here.

The second webinar in the series took place on Thursday 23rd November, this time with a focus on Interdisciplinary learning (IDL), a central tenet of these proposed changes through the inclusion of Project Learning as one of the three elements to the proposed SDA. (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Scottish Diploma of Achievement

The webinar began with Prof. Ken Muir laying out the background to IDL and why in the past it has not been given sufficient priority in Scotland due to an already crowded curriculum, the lack of appropriate CPD and the negative experience of S1/2 integrated social subjects. He then went on to emphasise that societal change has necessitated the development of different skills and abilities for school leavers. The importance of meta-skills like collaboration, communication, analytical thinking and creativity are essential in the modern workplace, but this importance is not reflected in the metrics currently used to assess our young learners. The SDA still recognises the importance of knowledge and understanding and the standing of subjects in the Programmes of Learning section, but the inclusion of the Project Learning section as an integral part of the infrastructure demonstrates the importance of IDL and how it can develop these meta-skills and other skills and competencies needed by future learners.

Prof. Colin Graham, RSE and Univ. of Edinburgh, emphasised that IDL is well established in Higher Education and that a lot of disciplines are by their very nature interdisciplinary, such as geochemistry. One of the criticisms of the current school system is the perceived narrowing of the curriculum and he suggested that we could increase breadth of learning by exploring the connections between subjects rather than studying more subjects. Knowledge is far more than the sum of the disciplines and this knowledge is growing rapidly. A definition for IDL could be: “…learners draw on knowledge and understanding from two or more disciplines in order to solve a problem or understand a topic”. 

A metaphor to illustrate this could be the critically important pillars of disciplinary knowledge and understanding holding up a lintel of IDL (see Figure 2). The examination of ethical issues raised by modern technology could be an example of this. We need to recognise that this is different to multidisciplinary learning that is quite often seen in schools.
Figure 2: A metaphor for IDL

IDL is very common in the workplace with an emphasis on teamwork and collaboration amongst people from different disciplines. It is also essential when dealing with practical everyday problems, emphasising the relevance of the learning to the real world. IDL promotes and develops higher-order skills and is essential to meeting 21st century challenges such as health and pandemics, energy and climate change. Relating to the SDA, Colin suggested that a better approach to IDL would be to call this problem-based learning rather than project learning. The new SDA should be problem-driven and project supported. Please consider accessing the IDL network, a place to share and discuss IDL resources at IDL Network. 

London Interdisciplinary School (LIS), Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI) and Abertay University all have a clear emphasis on IDL and reflect the change in Higher Education towards a greater emphasis on this. Colin finished with the statistic that more than 85% of major employers don’t care what subject you graduated in – it is the skills and the capacities you have developed that are more important. 
The presentations section of the webinar finished with Anna Bell and Jennifer Tempany from Powering Futures running through what they offer, as an example of how IDL might work for schools. Powering Futures is an SCQF level 6 accredited programme where teams of students take on real-life sustainability challenges set by real business. The student teams are expected to collaborate to create a solution and present this to a panel of industry judges. It covers a notional 80 learning hours across an academic session (100 minutes per week) with flexibility about how it can be timetabled, but targeted towards S5 and 6. There is no cost for school implementation of the programme and it provides 8 SCQF credit points as well as Insight data for schools. IDL should be problem driven and that is central to the challenges posed. They can be local, national, or global and are set by business and industry and changed annually to keep them up to date and relevant. The focus is on meta-skills development, and it runs from August through to March giving participants the way of working that will help them as they move on to the next stage of their lives. As well as skills and abilities, the course does recognise the importance of knowledge progression (Figure 3). The course is delivered by teachers in participant schools, but has been set up to allow teachers from any discipline to facilitate the learning. Assessment of IDL has traditionally been quite challenging, but Powering Futures fulfil this by participants completing a reflective logbook along with their final presentation to evidence the distance travelled by each student. Potentially this could allow mixed stage learning as each student making their own progress. 

Figure 3: Powering Futures systemic approach

Powering Futures have 643 students enrolled this year from 43 secondary schools. They have trained 74 teachers and are active in 21 local authorities giving good coverage across the country. Their presentation ended with a testimonial from Emily McLeod from Tobermory High School, a PE teacher who has been running the programme this session. 

The final section of the webinar gave the opportunity for general discussion/questions, keeping everyone in the main room in an attempt to develop the idea of collaboration so integral to good IDL. 

Discussions focused around the following main points:
The important role of NGOs in the implementation of IDL and the importance of bringing outside agencies to the table when implementing problem-based learning to ensure relevance. Collaboration and relevance were seen as important strengths of IDL at a recent conference. There is a real strength in young people meeting with people out with the normal school environment. 
The interest shown by colleagues south of the border in the changes proposed in Scotland, particularly through the Council of British Geography and the importance of learning from what has worked well elsewhere. 
The problem of Geography being constrained into the social subject grouping and the problems associated with the teaching of integrated social subjects in S1 and S2 and the possible legacy of this in the implementation of IDL. 
The importance of “bottom-up” curriculum development through initiatives like Powering Futures and events like this, rather than the top down approach of the past.

The idea of teachers increasingly being seen as facilitators of learning rather than just narrow subject specialists, but a recognition that subject knowledge and understanding forms the basis for broader IDL and should complement wider learning. Geographers are seen as pioneers in IDL and teachers of our subject have always needed to integrate both human and physical elements to their lessons. 
The importance of IDL needing to be integrated into initial teacher education (ITE) both in the primary and secondary sectors. This should not just be at the top end of schools because pupils need to develop the skills to access IDL throughout their time in education. The transition of young people into the world of work and developing the young workforce (DYW) links in nicely to this discussion.
Education is about preparing our students for the future they will experience when they leave school. Project (or problem)-based IDL is a way to develop the skills and abilities that are the tools they need to solve the problems they will face in the future – skills and abilities that aren’t reflected to date in what the PISA tests and statistics focus on. The skills they develop in IDL will benefit young learners and society as a whole.

The next webinar in this series will take place in late January and will focus on Learning for Sustainability (LfS).  The two presenters will be:
-     Prof. Pete Higgins, Chair in Outdoor Environmental & Sustainability Education, Edinburgh University; Director of the United Nations University Regional Centre for ESD (Scotland); and Director of the Global Environment & Society Academy. Pete is an internationally recognised expert on LfS and has worked with many schools in this area over the years. 
Pete and his colleagues run a free on-line course (MOOC) at present called: 
Learning for a Sustainable Future -

-    Mike Robinson, Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Mike leads RSGS’s important work on Climate Solutions and has gained national and international recognition, including an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Stirling, in recognition of his work on climate action and the promotion of geographical science.