Learning to learn is concerned with ‘how’ students learn but critical to every school’s performance is the imparting, absorbing and application of the ‘what ‘ of learning … in other words, the content of multi-disciplinary subject matter. Thus, the challenge for every teacher is to find ways of presenting new knowledge and information so as to embrace their students’ capacity and aptitude for learning, gaining ownership not only of the process of learning but of the material content of their lessons.
The teaching of subject matter cannot, therefore, be divorced from a concern for ‘learning fitness’. How do the different subjects and topics lend themselves to developing those learning dimensions, habit and behaviors that determine the quality of student Learning Power, their mental fitness to optimize their performance? How can the curriculum as a whole add up to a comprehensive ‘work out’ of the energies or behaviors that enable students to be the best they can be?.
What special role does each subject, or topic, have to play, when regarded as a specialist piece of equipment? How can it play a fruitful role in exercising in the mind gym? Stephen Fry argued that history is good for developing imagination and empathy. Can this perspective apply to the curriculum as a whole?
From this functional perspective, some interesting overlaps and alliances between traditionally separate subjects might begin to emerge.
- Both scientists and poets need the skill, and the disposition, for meticulous, sometimes very slow and patient, observation. They sometimes need the ability to suspend thinking in the interests of more detailed seeing. So could English and Biology find new ways to join forces?
- Both Mathematics and History involve the ability to be inductive: to seek and detect underlying patterns that recur across seemingly disparate episodes and events — could they DOWNLOAD ‘Learning Power’s Language’ DOWNLOAD An Aborigine Experience: Case History work together to help young people dissemble not just particular patterns, but the very processes and skills of pattern-detection?
At a much more general level … we should perhaps ask what kinds of engagement with the process of learning are afforded by any and every topic?
Harvard’s Professor David Perkins has introduced what he calls ‘wild’ and ‘tame’ topics. Wild ones are full of interesting unexplored possibilities because they stimulate question and exploration and thus exercise the ‘learning muscles’ of questioning and making meaning. Other topics, the tame ones, seem only to afford retention and comprehension BUT is that the case?
We could nominate and debate subject matter that might reasonably fall into the ‘wild’ or ‘tame’ categories endlessly but as teachers our job is to introduce the wild side of our specialist discipline to our classes and thereby, share the enjoyment that is engendered by the learning partnerships between students and teachers becoming integral to classroom culture.