Press ‘Shift’ To Learn

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Should we embrace multidisciplinary studies?

Not A New Phenomenon

When Finland announced that they would introduce phenomena-based learning it caused quite a stir but at Ringstabekk Skole in Norway this was nothing new – they have been doing this successfully for four decades.

Ringstabekk is a secondary school just outside Oslo and has over 400 pupils aged 13-16 years.

This is an outward thinking, forward thinking and deep thinking school with an impressive multidisciplinary approach where being a connected learner is the modus vivendi.

Inspired by Danish pedagogue Knud Illeris and his ideas of cross-curricular project work, Ringstabekk adopted a more holistic approach to learning when teachers noticed that their students were not truly energised in what they learned at school.

Open Architectures

The argument against a subject-driven curriculum is compelling because it compartmentalises learning forcing students to think in terms of arbitrary subject distinctions. Real-life isn’t like that but linked together and Ringstabekk School is a place where learning is definitely connected to reality.  Teaching is not linear and teachers there have a very different pedagogy to the way of teaching that dominates the UK. At Ringstabekk there is a different way of teaching where teachers run their own school and students have more mental space to breathe and learning is opened up. According to their astute headteacher, Bjorn Bolstad, they build societies.

Ringstabekk is an example of ‘open architectures’ learning which involves a shift of emphasis from stiff, solitary lessons to longer periods of time, creating more elasticity in the curriculum. They are ‘architectures’ because they still have a structure but ‘open’ in that there are spaces for students to exercise initiative and choice. At the hear of all this kunnskaping (knowledge and value creation) are relationships based on trust, equality and effort.

Together Everyone Achieves More

Teaching has always been richly collaborative and relies heavily on teamwork but cooperation is taken to a different level at Ringstabekk because teachers work in multidisciplinary teacher-teams. Here teachers are responsible for the growth of 6-75 students and each team is made up of 4-6 teachers. Ringstabekk is actually 6 schools within the school.

The teachers together craft and create the students’ timetables and make their own plans based on the national curriculum and the expectations of the school leaders. The school uses different cross-curricular methods, and is continually fine-tuning and polishing methods such project-based learning, enquiry-based learning and simulations.  Teachers are involved in sharing their ideas together and pick up ideas from each other in partnership and all students experience the same learning methods and multidisciplinary themes.


One method often used at Ringstabekk is ‘Storyline’, a strategy for active learning which was developed in Scotland by Steve Bell and colleagues at Jordanhill Teacher Training College in Glasgow.

This is a form of thematic learning which was specially designed for young children, and is structured by a narrative which provides a carcass frame of the ‘storyline’.

The learning process begins with finding out what students already know about a theme and that is built up through episodes which move the story forward to a logical conclusion. It goes through three stages:

  1. A situation or location is proposed by the teacher;
  2. Students become part of the narrative by creating roles for themselves;
  3. The teacher moves the narrative forwards in a planned progression, with each event providing a stimulus for student activity, e.g. research, writing, drama, discussions, etc…

The process is guided by open-ended questions which must provoke many responses, and well planned activities selected by the teacher, concentrating on new learning experiences and learning outcomes. The idea is that the problems prompted by the key questions should be ‘real’ problems as they are experienced by the figures who take part in the story. Adapted to secondary contexts all over the world, ‘Storyline’ engages students on a highly personal level that is hugely engaging.

For more information about the Storyline approach then take a look here.

Connect The Dots

Breaking down subject divisions helps students learn more broadly and they begin to see connections that they might otherwise miss. An enquiry based approach means that students get used to getting a task and then working together to problem-solve it. This more open way has the added benefit of encouraging students to ask questions that interest them, without needing to worry about subject barriers. Encouraging students to investigate the questions that interest them is one of the best ways to drive engagement.

At Ringstabekk the focus is on helping students to be cooperative, problem-solvers, divergent thinkers and innovative. For most of the time, students work in small groups and learn by doing, talking, thinking and solving tasks together. They are also far more engaged in their learning and enjoy learning for the sake of it.

The Ringstabekk school still follows the national curriculum and national assessment-systems and students also complete the same national tests and exams as all other students in Norway. To prove that multidisciplinary learning ‘works’ and provides students with the knowledge and skills they need, they actually perform very well in these tests.

Should the UK press ‘Shift’ and move to a way of learning that is more relevant to the way we live now? Creating truly cross-curricular themes stimulates more holistic learning experiences, empowering students to experience and connect to real world phenomena, rather than learn discrete subjects which create a fragmented version of reality.

One thought on “Press ‘Shift’ To Learn

  1. As a preservice teacher, I can absolutely see the value in a multidisciplinary education. Instead of designating a certain time slot throughout the day for each different subject and asking our students to turn one subject off and then switch gears to turn the next one on, teaching all subjects in an open and connected way seems to be much more beneficial. As a result, students are able to make the connections between everything that they are learning and may very well comprehend the material at a much higher level as well as retain the information for a significantly longer amount of time.

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