Rethinking School Subjects


The traditional view of school subjects is that they are nouns, static bodies of knowledge comprised of facts and information to be memorized. This view creates apathy in students. When we begin to regard school subjects as verbs, not things that exist independently somewhere out in the world, but things that people do, Math or History or Chemistry come to life. Knowledge is action.

The typical academic day for a student consists of six 45 minute classes in middle school or four 1 hour classes in high school, in a variety of subjects with several teachers. While teachers try to make connections between subjects and provide a cross-curricular curriculum, the reality is that the majority of learning in schools is compartmentalized. Educators often use the analogy of a silo to relate this separation of knowledge. The problem is, as we all know, learning in life is not so neatly divided, it defies being put into categories. No dotted lines exist between school subjects in the real world.

So, what’s the alternative?

The recent news that Finland is planning to get rid of subjects made headlines around the world. The country is often regarded as the poster child for an effective education system, praised for its academic successes and progressive reforms. The reports were a bit misleading though, as the changes are slowly being rolled out only in the capital city of Helsinki and not the whole country. That said, it’s still a bold move. Abandoning old ways of thinking and deconstructing school is never easy.

In Finland, the subjects are being replaced by what the Finns call ‘phenomenon’ teaching – or teaching by topic. For example, cross-curricular topics such as the European Union would merge elements of economics, history, languages and geography. It incorporates more project-based learning in hopes of providing students with more practical skills and the ability to understand concepts across a wider range.

In the article, It’s Time to Get Rid of History, Biology and Chemistry Classes, Eric Horowitz says, ‘Let’s take each subject, rip it apart, and sew it into new classes build on themes that hold some of the keys to succeeding in modern society.’ He believes that subject re-organization wouldn’t mean downplaying content knowledge as most of what we teach can fit into a broader interdisciplinary theme. Universities have already gone this route, so why not try it in schools? As Horowitz states, ‘We live in a world that’s vastly more complex that it was even 25 years ago. When will our subject boundaries evolve to reflect that complexity?’

Possible topics / themes to teach:

  • Social justice
  • Human relationships
  • Complex systems
  • Mindfulness
  • Cause and effect

Which ones would you include?

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