We Need to Mix & Match between Subjects (and Edtech can Help Us)

Traditionally the story has gone as follows: first as a child you learnt spontaneously and autonomously the things you felt important, with maybe your parents’ or other adults’ reinforcement activities. (“Say ma-ma, MA-MA.” “Grrbrgl.” “Good boy!”)


Then it was off to preschool, where they started showing you letters and numbers. In other words, you got your first dose of maths & reading. In primary education you got served a bit more subjects, and even more in secondary education. At the end of secondary you had a couple of languages, maths, physics, history, geography, etc. A whole bunch of subjects.

Then it was full stop. Whether it was university, polytechnic, or vocational education for you, you generally had to pick a subject and go from there. One subject, leaving all these other wonderful domains behind.

But it did not matter, since after your higher or applied studies came the work life where you were assumed to know that one topic you had educated yourself. Carpenter, captain, accountant, veterinarian. You got paid for doing that one thing.

Somewhere along the way things changed. These days work is ever more multidisciplinary and calls for skills, which make use of things taught across the curriculum. We need T-shaped people, to quote the term coined by IBM [PDF]. T-shaped people have deep knowledge of some subject but also, and sometimes more importantly so, lighter knowledge of many other domains.

If I am to predict, we are not going back to individual experts working alone. Instead, we are proceeding even further into teams consisting of multitalented people each having separate roles but still capable of understanding each other.

So what to do? This should be embraced in education, of course. I think there is nothing wrong with subjects, mind. On the contrary, they are useful abstractions of similar kinds of information. However, it should be easier to hop over the subject boundaries and implement multidisciplinary teaching and learning.

If we look at the grade levels, I think the most convenient places to add multidisciplinary approaches are at the start and at the end of one’s educational life. At the start children are not yet accustomed to subjects and it is more natural for them to switch lanes.

And at the end, when teenagers are preparing for work, it would be very useful for them to get a grip of what’s going on in corporate life, and what it has in store for them. So for universities, polytechnics, vocational education, and even upper secondary, I would like to see more project-based work with real-life topics.

Many educational technologies can help in this:

  • Children can collect online portfolios consisting of content spanning several subjects.
  • They can use suitable social media tools and virtual learning environments to work in groups and assess each others’ achievements, learning teamwork as they go
  • Educational games and other content utilizing gamified elements can teach several subjects in one unified universe.
  • etc.

Bottom line: We should respect subjects and utilize them to the max. However, we shouldn’t let them prevent multitalented experts to emerge.

Flickr image CC credits: Tulane Public Relations

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