Monday, April 7, 2014

Approaches to teaching and learning part 2: integrated -v- interdisciplinaray

I'm reading a recent IBO publication about approaches to learning and thinking in a little more depth about student-centred learning.  Over the past year and a half I've been part of many conversations about learning, and about inquiry, project based learning and collaboration.  The publication by Na Li discusses these different approaches.

Inquiry - students solve real problems by asking questions, analysing problems, conducting investigations, gathering and analyzing data, making interpretations, creating explanations and drawing conclusions.  The skills that are addressed through inquiry are critical and creative thinking, self-regulatory skills, metacognition and communication.  Studies show that there are challenges to designing good inquiry based learning units:
  • motivating students
  • the mastery of inquiry strategies
  • covering enough content knowledge
  • the management of complex activities and resources
  • practical constraints (class size, technology etc)
I think that many teachers who do not use inquiry are confused about what it involves and worry that students don't learn enough facts.  Actually content knowledge is very important for inquiry and teachers often front-load the content that students will need for their inquiries.  In addition more scaffolding and more teacher questions are needed for younger students who engage in inquiry.  Another very important aspect is formative assessment - which should be used by teachers to guide the planning of the inquiry units.  Both content knowledge and skills should be formatively assessed, and teachers need to be able to observe and identify students' abilities to use inquiry strategies.  These shifts in pedagogy generally require teachers to have additional training in order for the effective implementation of inquiry-based learning.

Problem-based learning (PBL) - similar to inquiry, PBL is often done in small groups with the teacher as facilitator.  Knowledge and skills are developed by solving authentic problems.  There is similarity between inquiry and PBL because PBL involves inquiry strategies.  Studies that have looked at the impact of PBL on knowledge and skills have shown that:
  • PBL has a positive effect on skills, however PBL has a different impact on content knowledge depending on students' expertise levels and knowledge base - in particular students with a low level of prior knowledge may be overwhelmed when applying new knowledge.
  • Students may learn fewer facts and less content in PBL, however they acquire a more elaborate knowledge and may perform better in retention and transfer of this knowledge.
  • Diversified assessment is needed to get a clear picture of students' knowledge and skills achievement in PBL.
Collaborative learning - both inquiry and PBL rely on collaboration as students come together to solve problems and construct knowledge through interacting with others.  The effectiveness of collaborative learning depends on factors such as the composition of the group and the prior knowledge of its members.  Without enough prior knowledge students do not come up with high quality explanations, nor do they construct deep understanding through considering the multiple perspectives of the group members.

How do these various approaches to learning match with either an integrated or an interdisciplinary curriculum?  An integrated curriculum starts from authentic real-life problems and then brings in content knowledge from different disciplines.  This sounds to me more like the PYP transdisciplinary approach.  An interdisciplinary curriculum, however, is designed around the content knowledge of one discipline with relevant content knowledge from other disciplines being aligned and mapped.  This to me seems more similar to the MYP.

Photo Credit: Lori Greig via Compfight cc


  1. Another waste of time, many educational psychology studies have proven these methods are shallow, confusing to students and ineffective, it's like building a house on mud. After school tutoring from parents at PYP schools gives teachers the impression that inquiry and PBL is working. Maggie, do you have children in a PYP school? How did they do at Uni? Did they major in the liberal arts or hard sciences? We can't all be wishy washy constructivist learners, some of us value real education with real outcomes and I damn well hope your family doctor wasn't educated in the constructivist inquiry method, because after some experimentation many medical schools have realized it is ineffective and have switched back to traditional and proven techniques. One thing the IB people are not practising is being open minded, although this is such an important learner profile in IB classrooms. Have you ever, ever, entertained the thought that inquiry methods just don't work? What do you say to all those parents who've seen through the failures and demand going back to basics?

  2. Thank you for your comments. I do indeed have children who have gone through the IB programmes, PYP, MYP and the IB Diploma. Both attended top UK universities. My son studied geography and later went on to do a project in renewable energy at a science and technology university in Hong Kong, and my daughter is currently doing an MA in History.

    I would be interested in reading the "many educational psychology studies". Please provide a link to these. The PYP is based on beliefs about how children learn from the educational theorists Vygotsky, Bruner and Gardner among others. Gardner is Professor of Education at Harvard University - not a wishy washy place.

    Parents make a choice to put their children into PYP schools. For those who are not satisfied with this education there are of course many other choices of schools they can make. Earlier this year I visited another school in India and had the opportunity to meet about 60% of the parent body. These Indian parents had definitely gone through a traditional educational system and had made the choice for something different for their own children.