Why We Need To Abandon Subjects And Focus On Big Picture Learning


When you dance, your purpose is not to get to a certain place on the floor. It’s to enjoy each step along the way. — Wayne Dyer

I think we got it all wrong in education.

Consider this. We always talk about connecting the classroom (the instruction, the subject area, the concepts etc.) to the real world. But, doesn’t it make more sense to take what’s happening in the real world and just teach that? The whole idea of having to connect school to the real world came from the fact that most subjects are taught in isolation from it.

Why can’t we change that?

Take Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). You can use this very relevant and controversial issue and teach about it from multiple perspectives.

Chemistry: What exactly is oil? How is it refined? How is it burned in cars? What are other petroleum products?

Physics:What are the physics of transporting it from ND to IL? How does it flow? Hydraulics?

Geography: What landforms etc. does it have to go through? What are the considerations/issues?

Biology/Geology/Environmental Science:What sediment does the pipeline go through?What are the potential impacts of it on the environment? Health? Pollution? Ecosystem? Species?

Engineering: How isthe oil extracted from the ground? What materials are used to build the pipeline? What kind of equipment is used to build it and how does it work?

Humanities/Psychology/Culture/Law/Social Studies: How does it affect the local population? Why is it controversial? Why do so many people oppose it? Who are the native people living there? What is their story? Why should we care?

Arts:Research the music, pottery, and other art produced by the native population. Write and perform a poem/song/skit/play about the population and/or the issue. Produce a painting, a collage, a sculpture, or a digital poster representing the issue.

Home Ec:Make some items or recipes specific to the region or the indigenous population.

Math:Calculations involving cost, equipment, oil extraction, oil refining, oil flow, density, slope. Drawing graphs and interpreting data.

English/Speech:Read, write, discuss,and speak on the issues. Defend your position (pro/con).

Foreign Language: Write a hypothetical conversation about the DAPL in a foreign language and perform it in front of an audience.

Physical Education: We have this one mostly right, because most kids like it (I think).

I realize my examples are incomplete, but that’s precisely the point: There is so much more that we can do with such a Big Picture Event! We could work in cross curricular teams facilitating instruction in teams or rotating kids through. Why not?

We talk about changing school for kids and teaching 21st century skills, but we teach them using Industrial Age models. Integrating technology is important, but does little if we don’t replace our old philosophy of teaching with something more relevant. At the end of the day, boring out of context content is still irrelevant and pointless even if it was delivered using the newest cutting edge tech tools.

Abandoning subjects and teaching cross curricular content using current and historical events is a complete paradigm shift from what education in America (and perhaps most of the world) looks like today, but doing it this way instantly answers the age old question: Why do I have to know this?

Every student can find something that is relevant to them in such a system and can interact with the content in multiple ways and look at it from multiple perspectives. Education becomes more holistic. The world does not consist of events split by subjects, why does school have to?STEAM, English, Social Studies etc.occur simultaneously in everything we experience and at the same time, but we don’t categorize them when we watch the news. We just take it all in and learn.

We keep trying to make school relevant by connecting the classroom to the world outside; the real world. Meanwhile, Federal and State level governments set standards and pick which tests kids need to take. The district level administration keeps calling for personalized learning. Building admins get us more professional development. That’s all cool, but the issue is bigger than that.

The reality is that we’re applying more bandaids to the situation that calls for a freaking surgery.

You have the power to change lives. Use it often.

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