In One World Schoolhouse, Sal Khan emphasizes that real learning–the kind you don’t forget five minutes after the test–requires integration of ideas. His book focuses on applying this concept to group schools, but I think it has implications for homeschooling too. He uses the example of math and science:
Genetics is taught in science while probability is taught in math, even though one is really an application of the other. Physics is separate from algebra and calculus despite its being a direct application of them. Chemistry is partitioned off from physics even though they study many of the same phenomena at different levels…the breaking up of concepts like these has profound and even crucial consequences for how deeply students learn and how well they remember.
I’d take it a step further:
All subjects are integrated.
History, political change, philosophy, science, math, art, and literature happen together in historical eras. None of these disciplines exists in a vacuum. And, I would venture to add, you can’t really understand what was going on in one area without understanding what was happening in other areas.
Educational “subjects” are a modern invention.
Khan hits this point as well, and he’s correct. In times past, it was common for mathematicians to write about metaphysics (beliefs about ultimate truth, good, and God, among other things). Early scientists were also philosophers. Artists and writers reflected on political and social changes and helped to shape ethics. It wasn’t until fairly recently that we broke everything down into rigid “disciplines” and “subjects” and while it helps to break up a school day, I think it was a detrimental development.
Ideas link subjects – even for little kids.
While some classical educators believe that kids should be filled with facts as “pegs” to hang ideas on later, I think on the contrary kids should be given ideas as pegs for their facts. That’s more of a Charlotte Mason idea, but I think it has bearing on classical education too. Learning facts along with the ideas that link them together makes the information more easily understood and helps the child to retain it and build on it. Obviously older kids can analyze and interact more deeply with ideas, but even preschoolers can begin to make astute connections between different events and subjects if you help them think through great ideas.
How can you teach with ideas and integrate subjects?
Basically, teaching with ideas involves giving kids context for what they learn, and not artificially stovepiping information. One thing I love about Tapestry of Grace is how it organizes subjects chronologically–so you learn what was going on in government, economics, literature, art, and science in any given historical period. Just learning a timeline has some value, but when you can add in discussions about what caused new developments, how one area of knowledge impacts another, and why historical figures acted as they did, you give some weight and context to dry dates and rote memorization. I’ve found that my kids retain the timeline much better when we do this, and conversely that knowing a timeline helps them to put what we’re reading about in-depth into the context of the broader scope of history.
If you don’t homeschool…
No matter what sort of school your kids attend, you can still encourage them to find connections between subjects. I think just talking about context goes a long way, but you can also often find fiction and non-fiction books that shed more light on what was happening and what life was like in different time periods. A fabulous resource for all time periods are The Story of the World books (get them on audio and kids can listen by themselves or you can listen together in the car. Worth every penny!). Sal Khan had some great ideas in his book for how schools could foster idea-based subject integration too.
What do you think about ideas and integrating subjects? Is it something you do with your kids, and how do you do it?
Disclosure: I’m a Tapestry of Grace affiliate because I love the program so much–if you purchase something through the link in this post, I do get a credit from the company. Thanks for supporting A Spirited Mind!