Sustaining Education for Today & A Lasting Future: Building the Interdisciplinary Subject

Chris McNutt
March 28, 2023
Bringing students into the conversation and building holistic communities of care isn’t impossible. Let's start right now!

We are honored and thrilled to be partnering with the international nonprofit organization, Holistic Think Tank (HTT), to continue our collaboration on the Interdisciplinary School Subject. Starting this Spring, Human Restoration Project (HRP) and the University of Sheffield UK (UoS) will be working closely with HTT to refine and pilot our interdisciplinary curriculum built over the last year. This key partnership is funded through HTT’s mission and vision to build a better education system, awarding $75,000 to both HRP and UoS. The entire curriculum will be released open access throughout the 2023-2024 school year.

Our goal is to deliver a tangible curriculum that is meaningful for young people and educators. Usable in any context, we are creating resources that are adaptable, purposeful, and hands-on: allowing for more traditional lessons that engage beyond typical lesson plans, while giving space for a truly hands-on, multi-week interdisciplinary PBL process. We know that educators are often unsupported and policies must begin to sustain the profession – and it’s our hope that these resources supplement a teacher’s workload in a meaningful way. The full, entirely free curriculum will contain over a hundred lessons, concepts, and projects to explore.

Classrooms across the world are in need of humanization. Whether it be curriculums stuck in the past, an increasingly inequitable and unsustainable teaching (and learning) system, or a declining amount of engagement in schools, there is a dire need for change. We’re at a turning point: we can build a better education system that serves all students through joy, creativity, and care. Or, we can increasingly isolate our classrooms from the global challenges today, leading to further reactive policies that surveil, demean, or disengage students.

Holistic Think Tank’s docu-short, Good Day, highlights why schools need to change.

Pictured: A graph of inequalities in OECD countries by socioeconomic quartile, showing a decline in overall academic achievement but a same academic achievement gap overtime. Source: Presentation by Pasi Sahlberg at Holistic Think Tank Summit 2023.

Our resources are aimed at engaging young people in changing the world through wonder and community action. Recent innovations in artificial intelligence neural networks have demonstrated that rote learning is now as untenable as ever – with ChatGPT as the ultimate trivia solver. And global crises from climate change to increasing militarization across the world give us pause to contemplate the future of our world, let alone education. The United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, recently stated that,

[The mental health crisis is] also being driven by the fact that young people, when they think about the future, see the profound threats that we are facing today, like violence and racism and climate change, but they don’t see effective solutions.

In the same release, Murthy noted that young people are flooded with 24/7 information, rampant misinformation, a “hustle culture”, and social media dopamine loops. The world today is moving fast and our children are struggling. A partnership must be made between schools, educators, and young people to address these problems within the classroom rather than pulling the wool over our eyes.

Pictured: A graph showing student well-being dropping overtime, even before the pandemic, with sedentary and online time rising. Source: Presentation by Pasi Sahlberg at Holistic Think Tank Summit 2023.

As the pandemic exacerbates inequalities and leads educational reformers to focus on testing-driven“learning loss” narrative, schools need to be equipped to resist calls for “back to basics” and instead embrace creative solutions. Doubling down on testing, rote learning, direct instruction, and other traditional methods of teaching is not the solution. It’s been tried decade after decade to the same result each time: students are disengaged and are not prepared for the challenges of today.

Pictured: A graphic showing various privatization and testing-aligned movements in the 1980s-2000s leading to standardization and de-professionalization of schools, which has led to the narrowing of curriculum, growing inequalities, and weakening public education. Source: Presentation by Pasi Sahlberg at Holistic Think Tank Summit 2023.

Further, we know that our educational system is not working to create curious, happy, conscientious, and empathetic kids. The predominant Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) is characterized by competition, standardized curriculum, back-to-basics instructional methods, and test-based accountability. And the global pattern is clear: where the GERM spreads, it induces a deadening homogenization of educational ends and means, subverts the professionalization of teaching, and puts test scores ahead of student health and well-being. However, there is another way: holistic, interdisciplinary, hands-on instruction that shares power with students. The world needs curious kids who care about each other, who see themselves as part of an interrelated whole, who want to do better for themselves and their communities, and who have the knowledge and abilities to do so. 

Pictured: Two circles, with the first showing Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) leading to standardization, competition, and test-based education, and the second showing the key drivers of successful education systems, including cooperation, customized curriculum, and trust-based professionalism. Source: Presentation by Pasi Sahlberg at Holistic Think Tank Summit 2023.

It’ll look different classroom to classroom - that’s the point -  but frameworks for compassion that encourage collaboration toward meeting real challenges in communities simply work better. Because… of course they do! Any typical person who seriously thinks about education recognizes immediately that teacher-led, “drill and kill”, silent instruction is boring, outdated, and pointless. The student well-being crisis isn’t solely due to social media or cyberbullying – it’s because school itself is ignoring the world and making a lot of students just feel bad

Human Restoration Project travels around the United States conducting focus groups to lead students in partnership for professional development. Every school community tells us the same things: school isn’t relevant to students' daily lives; students crave collaborative, challenging work; and too much learning is on a computer doing self-paced, trivia-style assessment. Students consistently report that 90%+ of their learning is independent and on a computer (they wish it was 50% group and 50% project-based). Just like our environmental situation, these solutions need to happen now. Not in 30 or 50 years, not in another lifetime. 

Many classrooms and districts are already addressing these concerns. Bringing students into the conversation and building holistic communities of care isn’t impossible. But we must resist those who seek to turn the dial back and ignore these dire problems: more testing isn’t the solution. In our view, shifting to interdisciplinary, project-based, and collaborative work (at minimum, 50% of the time) would profoundly change the educational landscape and our collective future.

Pictured: Three models of classical schooling, including the Industrial, Competitive, and Academic Model, leading to an interdisciplinary system including an Organic, Cooperative, and Holistic Model. Source: Presentation by Pasi Sahlberg at Holistic Think Tank Summit 2023.

A preview of our interdisciplinary curriculum is available on our website. Stay tuned to our social media and Discord for future announcements, including opportunities for educators to pilot and contribute to the interdisciplinary subject. If you’re looking to start humanizing your classroom today, check out our full list of resources, podcasts, writings, and more on our website, as well as seek out like-minded organizations making change, such as Learning for Justice, the Zinn Education Project, and Rethinking Schools. Let’s begin to restore humanity, together.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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