Thursday, 9 February 2012

Is there value in a timetable?

There is so much for children to learn about and so much they need to, want to, should and could know before they complete each year level and the following question was puzzling me: why then do we waste time subdividing the day into artificial timeslots of subjects? Why can't we teach things without neatly packaging them into the categories of literacy, numeracy, science and so forth? In life, things do not come neatly packaged into distinct subjects. When one of your students is doing their shopping as an adult, do you think they will read their list, estimate the total bill, evaluate nutritional information during designated literacy, numeracy and health timeouts? Adults do all this instantaneously.

It is our role as educators to teach this skill, at least occasionally. One method is an integrated approach where subjects are combined in the one session around the same piece of work. For instance, using math and science simultaneously, students could do 'moon jumps' where they jump and then measure how high they would have jumped on the moon (by multiplying their jump height by about six) to learn about the moon's lower level of gravity. They could then do the same for the other planets. Alternatively, an interdisciplinary approach is where subjects centre on a particular theme but are still segmented into a timetable. For instance, my inter-disciplinary Original Lesson 4: Inventors' Workshop centres on a snowboard but, in separate sessions, could be used to teach literacy in writing a story about the invention, numeracy in calculating the cost of the modifications, science in terms of the motions and forces and geography around great snowboarding mountains of the world.

On the other hand, there are a few meritorious arguments in favour of timetables that I would like to explore. Using an integrated or inter-disciplinary approach every day, a teacher could fail to give sufficient attention to the core subjects. That is certainly the political motivation behind mandated times dedicated to literacy and numeracy. In Victoria, the guideline is two hours of literacy, one hour of numeracy per day or the equivalent spread across a school week or fortnight. But where is the quality mandate? Guaranteeing a uniform quantity provides no assurance as to quality. Surely someone recognised that when they were formulating those guidelines. A literacy lesson that links to a real-world topic and theme in which the students can immerse themselves, such as the Gold Rush or African animals, is more likely to elicit creative, perspective-driven writing than a weekly journal. The Gold Rush theme could then be used in maths regarding the weight and measurement of gold nuggets and science in the study of geology, thereby providing for more valuable, context-driven learning than studying measurement and rocks as individual topics without any overarching, connecting focus.

Non-compartmentalised sessions are also more complex to plan and, therefore, more creatively challenging and time-consuming for teachers. It can become extra difficult where students need to work on specific literacy and numeracy skills and these do not seem to fit into any all-encompassing activities. It can also be, but is not necessarily, a more resource-intensive approach. All of these reasons are not excuses to avoid integrated or interdisciplinary sessions but they are explanations for the slow take-off speed of these approaches. Indeed, some schools do not even understand the concept. Instead, the humanities domains of geography, history, civics and economics are collectively referred to as 'integrated studies'. This is despite that not even the humanities are taught in this manner in these schools and the humanities are certainly (I hope you agree by now) not the only subjects that should benefit from this teaching approach.

The most powerful justification for timetabling that I have is to provide students with a specific, conscious focus for the lesson. If a student knows their focus for the session is adjectives, they are more likely to improve upon their adjectives than if they are learning about four different things from four different subjects at once. My conclusion, therefore, is to keep the timetable but that both integrated and interdisciplinary approaches are extremely valuable for teaching children how subjects can all relate to one real-world concept and how to use the skills they gain from each of their subjects in the manner they will be required to as an adult: instantaneously.


Anonymous said...

Hi Anna,
As part of my training I have had to plan lessons and units using both approaches, and I'm not sure I could teach full-time integrated (but perhaps this is simply because I haven't had to in any of my practicums?)It may just be my own interpretation but it seems that a lot of NZ classrooms I've been in do a mixture of 'core' and 'explore' learning - or that literacy and numeracy are timetabled while the other curriculum areas are integrated into thematic units that last 6-7 weeks. Is it similar in Australia currently?

Anna Kapnoullas said...

Hi Carolyn,
Yes this is exactly what is happening as I have seen it. Numeracy and literacy are done everyday and are very distinct and separate. Then 'discovery' can involve a wide mixture of civics, history, geography and other domains all in the one student-led project.
It is amazing how similar NZ sounds, especially given that our official system implies (but does not mandate) the specific teaching of history, geography and so on. This is not necessarily negative, but I do think some explicit teaching of these domains is important as well.