Geoff Johnson: School courses must be interconnected

Is there a connection between a study of history and a study of geography? How about history and science? Physics and math?

How about physics, math, electronics and technology being taught as if those areas of knowledge are interrelated and part of a whole?

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Apparently, there are connections to be made and Templeton Secondary in Vancouver is doing just that with Grade 11 and 12 students working in groups on projects that combine physics, math, engineering and technology.

Templeton’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program has students building machines ranging from cranes and catapults to mock Mars rovers.

Students conceptualize, design, manufacture and then test what they have engineered. Sometimes they even do spot welding in the manufacturing process and use spreadsheets to calculate how a slight change would affect their project outcome.

It’s a good example of what can happen when a previously dis-integrated curriculum is integrated in the same way as areas of knowledge are merged in the proverbial “real world.”

Traditional secondary school courses are taught as if there is no relationship between areas of knowledge and, architecturally, schools are designed and constructed to support that notion. The science labs are distant from the math classrooms, with courses basically unrelated to each other taught by different teachers.

History and geography? Substantially different areas of study taught as if the geography of the planet has had no influence on the history or cultures of the various peoples who populate our world.

Organizationally, students are encouraged to learn as individuals rather than in collaborative groups, yet industry leaders, talking about the jobs of tomorrow, describe situations where employers want people who are flexible, good communicators, who collaborate well with others and can work productively in group settings.

The Conference Board of Canada, in its analysis of the 21st-century skills, does not limit literacy, for example, to the content of conventional English courses.

The board suggests that the kids being prepared to make their mark in the next 50 years will need to be able to read and understand information presented in a variety of forms beyond words and will be fluent with graphs, charts, diagrams, spreadsheets and PowerPoints.

They will need to not only execute mathematical operations accurately, but to be able to make decisions about what needs to be measured or calculated and use relevant mathematical knowledge and skills to explain or clarify ideas.

They will be also expected to select and apply a variety of procedures, connect mathematical ideas, select and use a variety of types of reasoning and communicate their thinking in writing, using mathematical language and conventions.

Beyond the confines of any single curriculum, kids moving into the workplace and looking for something other than McJobs will be able to apply a systematic approach to problems and use a variety of thinking skills to solve problems. They will be able to analyze ideas and information to draw conclusions and make judgments.

A solid background in the basics is critical but will be only a start, only what provides a platform for career-minded students as they move from career to career three or four times in a working life.

Much more than basics will be expected in terms of broader understanding and the ability to link areas of knowledge in a search for solutions to everyday academic or workplace problems.

All of which mean that courses such as Templeton Secondary’s STEM program are on the right track.

STEM’s program partners include the B.C. Institute of Technology and SAP, a German multinational software corporation. BCIT works with Templeton staff to identify the gaps in learning that students have when they arrive at post-secondary schools, while SAP employees mentor students, working online with them on a transition plan for after graduation.

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, speaking at a Vancouver educational forum last week, said the OECD is trying to adjust its traditional testing methods to better measure what is important.

“What matters today most is different ways of thinking — problem-solving, creativity — it’s the tools of thinking that matter today,” Schleicher said.

“What is important today is not how you solve a problem, but how you connect with others to solve problems.”

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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