An Interdisciplinary Curriculum: What’s a Math Teacher Doing in an English Classroom?

The Journey Begins…

The seed of an idea developed from conversations that I had with my colleague and mentor, Dr Ray Williams – Head of Mathematics at St Mark’s Anglican Community School, whilst we attended the 2009 International Learning Conference in Barcelona, Spain. The venue (Barcelona in the summer) provided the inspiration for an idea to look for ways to truly integrate subjects – and why not choose the traditionally most disparate of subjects – English and Mathematics? And so began our journey into an interdisciplinary world.

The goal was to bring together two curriculum areas, whilst also providing an opportunity to ensure transfer of knowledge across a number of disciplines. Knowledge transfer between disciplines has been one of our greatest sources of frustration in the school environment.Students have become very good at learning the tools, vocabulary, and skills in the various disciplines, but make little or no effort to transfer this information across into their other subject areas. In some ways we should not have been surprised due to the ‘siloed’ approach to education that had been employed at our school (and many other schools)  that had encouraged and structurally reinforced this lack of transfer. What was taught and learned in English stayed in English, what was taught and learned in Mathematics stayed in the realm of the Mathematics class. The same could be said for all the various disciplines across the school. We had put up the ‘walls’ of our classrooms and expected students to learn what was appropriate only within that environment. No wonder teachers were becoming frustrated – we’d created a monster – albeit a very subject-knowledgeable one.

The model used in most Primary/Junior Schools was the obvious one to turn to. One teacher, teaching across a range of subject areas, has a breadth of knowledge – but not necessarily the depth required at a Secondary level. What we wanted to avoid was the dilution of content in our subject areas, covering elements of the curriculum, but not necessarily delving into it in the detail required – particularly as we prepared students for Senior Secondary studies and the inevitable high stakes exams. What we also wanted to create were students who could effortlessly transfer knowledge learnt in one subject area across into others when appropriate – whilst also making them more socially responsible citizens and being aware of their world beyond the classroom. As John Keating (Robin Williams) states in the film Dead Poets Society, “Not a bad way to spend an evening, eh?”

Ethical Dilemma Story Pedagogy

At this time we turned to an approach called ethical dilemma story pedagogy based on the doctoral research of Elisabeth “Lily” Settelmaier (Settelmaier, 2003, 2009) who had adapted Lawrence Kohlberg’s and Carol Gilligan’s earlier work on moral reasoning to develop effective pedagogical strategies for the teaching of values. Dilemma story pedagogy has three key features:

  • (a) an ethical dilemma becomes the basis of the construction of a narrative story
  • (b) the story is contextualised within the life worlds of students, and
  • (c) the story invites students to make decisions on ethical issues through values clarification and negotiation.

Our connection with this approach led us to form an alliance with a project entitled Sustainable Sustainability: Preparing Australia’s Future Citizens for Informed Decision-Making through Socially Responsible Science Education, part of a 3 year study undertaken by Dr Peter Taylor and Dr Lily Taylor (née Settelmaeir) from Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. Whilst we were aware that the approach would not entirely suit our particular needs, we were convinced by Peter and Lily regarding the validity of our aims and were encouraged to dive in head first.

An Experiment: Teaching Side by Side

The initial vehicle used to initiate this project was a picture book entitled Window by Jeannie Baker. In the text, Baker presents a number of environmental dilemmas that the students were asked to engage with. Baker’s text presents a compelling argument against the urbanization of the natural landscape, inviting readers to consider the consequences of living in an ‘urban jungle’.

In this unit, students looked at elements of narrative, including a focus upon the effective use of Point of View, the unique development of characterization, the sequencing of plot, including an exploration of the importance of conflict and setting, as well as the way in which a picture book relates its story via the visual medium. Concepts such as perspective, hyperbole, sight lines and, most importantly, the rule of thirds were taught and elaborated upon. These components were discussed side by side, whilst at the same time asking students to engage with the central themes explored in the text. At the same time, from a Mathematical perspective, Ray and I identified a number of mathematical processes that could be applied to the physical representations in the picture book to attempt to quantify the implied arguments displayed.

The Results…

As we explored the social and environmental concepts in Window, we had some immediate successes. Students in our shared classes began to present arguments regarding the central themes of the text, and were using mathematical data to help establish their argument. They began to show an awareness of the role and purpose of literary techniques and art – that Jeannie Baker’s role as an artist is not to necessarily to present a mathematically accurate picture of the destruction of our natural world, but one to get us to think socially about the impact this might have. And they were able to recognize how she uses hyperbole to achieve this.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this journey was the opportunity to undertake some team teaching, with Ray and I often ‘appearing’ in each other’s classes in order to reinforce particular points. There is nothing like working collaboratively with a fellow educator on a project that fuels your passion. We had an absolute ball!

The beginnings of this journey (described in brief here) have developed into an ongoing 5 year journey that has expanded to the use of a range of texts – including poetry (the Australian classic The Man from Snowy River), novels (Yoko Ogawa’s brilliantly simple narrative The Housekeeper and the Professor) and even documentary film (the compellingly tragic story of lone sailor Donald Crowhurst in Deep Water). Whilst we have moved away from texts with a focus simply upon sustainability and the environment, the core element of dilemma stories still drives our work.

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The end result, we hope, has been a group of students that understand that knowledge is not confined to a single subject/classroom, but is shared and used across disciplines – and this in turn makes them better prepared students for the demands of university and life.

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Hungry for more? Check out this K-6 Math Literature List compiled by the authors ofEveryday Math at the University of Chicago or this Database of Math Fiction compiled by a math professor at the College of Charleston. Send more interdisciplinary recommendations to pd@rubicon.com

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