As a teacher I began to use Inquiry-based learning in my grade 7 classroom early in my career. I was drawn to Inquiry because as a student, I had often found myself wanting more from learning and the learning situation. Inquiry-based Learning provided an opportunity for students to explore and delve into topics at a deeper level with input into what they were learning about and even into the assessment events.
I still remember that “aha” moment when I began to make connections between curriculum and began to see how different learning objectives (Outcomes) were linked across subjects. It was a pivotal moment as a teacher as it opened up all sorts of opportunities for me to engage my students in multi-dimensional learning. I began to investigate and use the work of Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson to plan around Big Ideas, Essential Questions and Differentiation. Now one of the critical components of this is the work you do with the curricula, resources and the planning you do. My experience is that if you put in the time up front working with the curricula, learning how they fit together and seeing the connections yourself, you will reap the benefits later on. If you spend time working through the Learning Outcomes , unpacking them using Understanding by Design framework as outlined by McTighe and Wiggins, you will begin to make connections with your own knowledge and, more importantly, begin to see how what you are doing can connect with the world in various ways. For me this was important as it allowed me to inject learning activities with things I was interested in and passionate about in genuine ways.
It Takes Time
In my experience, it takes about 3 years of working with curricula, unpacking and delving into the learning outcomes to begin to make connections across subjects. It’s not that you won’t be able to see cross-curricular connections right away but it takes time to build cohesion. Often, in a the rush to be efficient, this step is often over-looked or even skipped in the rush to get teaches using curricula and developing assessment. However, this upfront time spent learning has huge dividends later on as you become familiar with cross-curricular connections with Learning Outcomes, especially if you are looking to begin to use such things as Genius Hour, MakerSpace, PBL, Inquiry or Flipped Classes. By having a deep understanding of Learning Outcomes, you are over prepared which then allows you to “go with the flow” as learning unfolds because you can confidently make connections and seamlessly weave together Assessment as, of, and for learning.
As an administrator, one of the skills I would reinforce with teachers was familiar with unpacking curriculum using Understanding by Design (backwards planning) since it started with Outcomes and assessment and worked towards building the connection between these right away followed by incorporating learning strategies and assessment strategies before finally building the learning sequence. All too often, teachers create great lessons but fail to make connections to/with other learning or don’t tie them together with assessment. Using PBL and Inquiry allows the students to have a great deal of input into the learning and even the assessment while the teacher can focus on Learning Outcomes and Essential Questions.
It’s Not About Efficiency
In a rush towards efficiency, it can seem like there is too much work going through UbD and planning with all the other things going on especially when there are ready-made units, rubrics, and assessment available. Although this might initially save time, I’ve found that it ends up creating work in the long run. Because no two students are the same and neither are two classes, being able to see the changes that are needed for a student and knowing how connections are linked through the curriculum allows a teacher to differentiate much more easily. Because you have a good foundational understanding of the curricula, you have the option to make changes with plans as you adapt and change to meet the needs of the students.
This flexibility comes from a deep understanding of the curricula with which you work and allows you to give more freedom to students as they are able to make choices about the content because you are working at the Learning Outcome level, not the content level. One of the greatest investments that schools can make is to provide teachers the opportunity to work together, and with curriculum specialists, to unpack and develop a deep understanding of curriculum. It is not as efficient as having a central-team or group of teachers do the unpacking but it creates an effective team that can adapt and differentiate to the ever-evolving changes that take place in a classroom and school. In my experience, the pay-off comes as teachers become more confident in their ability to meet the needs of students because they are confident in making in-class decisions that have a foundation in curriculum and pedagogy.
It’s a Personal Journey
In my own journey as a teacher, I found I was really comfortable with the curricula in my fifth year and was able to make changes much more easily across subjects. Being a grade 7 homeroom teacher, I was responsible for all the curricula which, once I was familiar and comfortable, allowed me flexibility and freedom to “go with the flow” with students as I was able to focus on the Learning Outcomes, giving students more flexibility to address these outcomes with various assessment and content.
Cross-curricular planning at the high-school level can be a bit more of a challenge but using UbD, a team of teachers can work together to make connections around Learning Outcomes moving toward assessment events which give each of the team members flexibility with the content.
As many of the participants in #saskedchat pointed out when we discussed this topic, there is no reason that senior teachers cannot work together and be able to assess various Learning Outcomes across subjects. With the advancement in technologies and the ability of teams to access Learning Outcomes across subjects and grade levels, teacher teams can build processes that allow teachers to connect and communicate much more fluidly the learning that is happening in the classroom. One key, I believe, is a deep understanding of curricula Learning Outcomes and the ability to make connections within and across subjects at any level.
There are some great ideas and resources in the chat and I recommend taking a moment to check out the archive!