Julian Reed, Assistant Head of The King Alfred School in Hampstead, looks at the benefits of integrating subjects for Years 6-8 to give students real-world learning experiences that expand their outlook

There is a growing feeling that the current education model is failing our students as their needs, and ultimately the needs of employers, are shifting rapidly. By making learning more creative and challenging – and giving students more ownership – we can give them both a more rewarding school experience and invaluable foundations as they transition through secondary school and beyond.

At The King Alfred School the students in Year 7 have been reaping the benefit of curriculum changes inspired by education in Finland, Singapore and globally through the International Baccalaureate. A third of their timetable is dedicated to Interdisciplinary Enquiry (IE) projects, which bring together three subjects and use cross-curricular learning activities to answer overarching questions such as ‘How did early humans survive?’ or ‘Is space tourism ethical?’.

King Alfred
Students at The King Alfred School have been considering the big issues – such as, is space tourism ethical?

This approach requires students to apply skills and knowledge learnt in one discipline to the context of another, more closely mimicking how we use knowledge in the workplace and developing an approach which is the hallmark of a more sophisticated cognitive level. Each project culminates in a mini-exhibition or presentation. Parents and staff have been invited in to witness students presenting ‘communal identity’ collages, survival shelters, space research articles, migration ‘zines’, slave trade memorials and microcrop-growing systems. These presentations provide impetus and an audience to the end of each project and give students a real sense of achievement as they learn to explain, reflect and take responsibility for their work. 

A wide range of visits, speakers and practical experiences help to enhance their learning of each topic and the outputs are often built around real-world situations which teach the students skills outside of the topic areas. Speaking after the first IE finished one student reflected: “I learnt a lot about collaboration and teamwork. It isn’t always easy, but we realised you don’t have to all be doing the same thing to make it work”.

“Projects give students a real sense of achievement as they learn to explain, reflect and take responsibility for their work”

When students looked at the question ‘How do we feed an overpopulated world?’, they began with a Biology trip to Kew Gardens, where they participated in a workshop about reproduction and pollination. They then met an urban farmer who showed them how to plant pea shoots, before experimenting with different variables to increase yield and improve the quality of their crops using Maths to work with the data. In Design Technology, students worked on designing and building structures to grow their crops in and learnt more about commerce by negotiating a deal with the school caterers to buy the resulting produce.

In the same way that the learning experience is changed to better reflect the outside world, the assessment process is too. In a more traditional curriculum, only knowledge and discipline-specific skills are assessed. Involving students in designing the success criteria, self-assessment and peer-assessment means they are continually celebrating their progress and identifying areas for further improvement.

Our experience has been that the time students spend developing and assessing interdisciplinary academic skills gives them the tools and confidence to approach the next stage of their academic careers, and the rest of their lives, as curious, reflective, confident and self-reliant learners.

The King Alfred School kingalfred.org.uk

Further reading: Pangbourne College on choosing an independent school at 11+