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Adaptation of contents to address the principle of learning to live together: The case for interdisciplinarity

Ellen-Marie Skaflestad


During the last two or three generations, great changes have taken place in the living conditions of the young. In many countries, both parents spend more time away from the home at their place of work, while their children’s links to the world of work and the learning that may be acquired there have waned. The impact of the mass media has grown continuously over the last decade, and schools have become increasingly multicultural.

Social change is no longer an episodic set of events interspersed by periods of stability. Advanced societies are now open to a continuous process of change, difficult to predict scientifically and control socially. These societies are dynamic rather than static, and complex rather than simple entities. Advanced societies are ‘risk societies’ (Elliott, 1998). Social change has ambiguous consequences for the individual. It opens up new possibilities for human fulfilment, but multiplies the risks and hazards that confront the individual in achieving this fulfilment. In these circumstances, responsibility for shaping the conditions of existence in society should be devolved down to the grassroots - to the people themselves. Education can only meet the challenge of social change if it gives all pupils access to appropriate cultural resources in a form that enables them to take responsibility for actively shaping the economic and social conditions of their existence.

The organization of the curriculum in terms of academic subjects for the purpose of systematic instruction is ill-suited to the aim of a general education. More consistent with such an aim is a curriculum that organizes cultural resources in usable forms for the purpose of enabling pupils to deepen and extend their understanding of the problems and dilemmas of everyday life in society, and to make informed and intelligent judgements about how they might be resolved. Such a curriculum will be responsive to the pupils’ own thinking and their emerging understandings and insights into human situations.

Educational change implies a focus on both curriculum and pedagogy, and on the development of teachers as experimental innovators. Learning has to be connected with the living experiences of students in a rapidly changing society. Different conceptions of education and of the curriculum presuppose different conceptions of society and the principles governing access to its ‘benefits’. Recent trends in curriculum policy-making reflect the dilemmas with which all ‘advanced’ Western states are wrestling. States feel that they need to steer the curriculum in ways that are consistent with their economic goals, but find that the context of policy implementation is too complex to handle from the centre. The dilemma is illustrated by, on the one hand, attempts at the State level to establish national educational standards through the concept of a core curriculum which will command a public consensus, and on the other, by pressure on schools to respond to the complex changes taking place in their locality.

However, it is clear that the idea of the curriculum having a unifying function in a diverse learning environment, combined with the emergence of the comprehensive common school, has gained strength in many societies. General education can be defined as ‘that part of the student’s whole education which looks first of all to his life as a responsible human being and citizen’ (Harvard Committee, 1945, in Elliott, 1998). The notion of citizenship should be central to defining the character of general education. Without it, general education tends to be defined as a common core of knowledge, skills, and values - a definition that fails to draw attention to basic curricular concerns, such as what knowledge is most worthwhile and what aims and objectives are best suited for schools in democratic societies.

General education is more than a function of the curriculum; it is also an orientation to learning and to curriculum design. Generally speaking, all education justified under general education should emphasize a socio-civic content that promotes problem-centred inquiry and group co-operation. General education should also be marked by interdisciplinary subject-matter schemes. The learner in this general education scenario is defined as an autonomously thinking, socially responsible citizen who is able to make decisions. In a broad sense, it is a perspective on learning that emphasizes citizenship priorities. Thus, the consequence of general education is a comprehensive concept of schooling (Hlebowitsh, 1993).

The connective model of the curriculum

Conceptions of knowledge underlie curriculum development and can be defined in either of two ways: ‘Curriculum as facts’ and ‘curriculum as practice’ (Young, 1998). ‘Curriculum as facts’ tends to have a life of its own and obscures the social contexts in which it is embedded. It often results in the curriculum being neither understandable nor changeable. ‘Curriculum as practice’ does not begin with the structure of knowledge, but with how knowledge is produced by people acting collectively. According to Young, this connective model of curriculum integration does not start with subjects but with the broader notion of curriculum purposes and how subjects can achieve those purposes. It does not start from the requirements of the national curriculum, but with individual schools defining their curriculum purposes and asking how they can be made to correspond to the requirements of the national curriculum.

Schools need to define their purposes in terms of the kind of young person they want to produce, and the kind of adult, worker, citizen and parent roles they wish young people to assume. For schools to move towards a connective model, all staff need to endorse the curriculum criteria and agree to articulate how their subjects or areas of responsibility would be involved - both in supporting shared approaches to teaching and learning and in delivering the agreed outcomes. The model is ‘connective’ in the sense that subject specialists would be required to connect their subject teaching to: (a) the purposes of the overall school curriculum; and (b) the way other subjects are contributing to the overall school curriculum. According to Young, the role of subjects would need to be made explicit in at least three ways; first, by identifying the specialist skills and knowledge they can offer; second, by showing how any of the specific skills and knowledge of particular subjects can contribute to the broader curriculum goals, such as personal and social education through collaboration with other subject specialists; and third, by identifying the contribution of subject specialists in enabling schools to develop their external links with employers, the community and other education providers.

The Norwegian National Curriculum: a connective curriculum model?

Changes in society and the structural changes in education have made it necessary to re-examine the guidelines governing the purpose and content of education. An agreed minimum values framework has been developed in a number of countries, in the search for the common good. Thus, the process of promoting a consensus of values represents a negotiated view of the common good in a given society at a certain period of educational reform. Globalization in education should mean that there is one ultimate goal to be supported by general education in all countries - how to make citizens able to understand both the local and global societies well enough to learn to live together and act as responsible citizens in local and global terms.

When large-scale reforms were being introduced in primary, secondary and higher education in Norway, it seemed natural and fitting to provide a common formulation of the common core of the curriculum, with a view to emphasizing how the stages of education are linked together, not forgetting adult education. Interdisciplinarity has to be considered not only across the curriculum at a certain stage or level of schooling, but in a vertical structure as well. Consequently, curricular reforms are to be seen as a macro-educational planning process. How the reform concept is interpreted is dependent on the social, political, economic, cultural and educational conditions of a country. It is a policy issue to define the context of change, and to view and be willing to develop a holistic reform strategy, where elements of change are linked and provide for interventions enabling curriculum implementation to be realized.

The starting point for the overall work on revised curricula for the different levels of the education system in Norway is to be found in the following Acts of Parliament: the Primary and Lower Secondary Education Act; the Upper Secondary Education Act and the Vocational Training Act; the Adult Education Act and Folk High Schools Act. The main themes in the relevant sections of these acts fell into the following six groups:

· moral outlook;
· creative abilities;
· work;
· general education;
· co-operation;
· natural environment.

The common core of the curriculum expanded on these themes. The introduction to the ‘Core Curriculum for Primary, Secondary and Adult Education’ in Norway states that the aim of education is to furnish children, young people and adults with the tools that they need to face the tasks of life and surmount its challenges. Education shall provide learners with the capacity to take charge of themselves and their lives, as well as equipping them with the will and determination to stand by others. Education must spur students to diligence and to close collaboration in the pursuit of common goals. It must promote democracy, national identity and international awareness. In short, the aim of education is to expand the individual’s capacity to perceive and to participate, to experience, to empathize and to excel.

It was recognized that if education is to achieve these aims, a number of concepts of the human being, illustrating our complex and diverse roles and identities, need to be defined for curriculum development. These include:

· The spiritual human being;
· The creative human being;
· The working human being;
· The liberally-educated human being;
· The social human being;
· The integrated human being.

Education should ultimately form integrated human beings possessing seemingly conflicting capabilities, attitudes, values and skills which permit him/her to lead a full and meaningful life, actively contributing to the common good, yet maintaining his/her own identity and dignity. From this perspective Norwegian education aims to:

- convey the culture’s moral values, with its concern for others, while fostering the ability to plot one’s own life course;

- provide familiarity with Norway’s Christian and humanist heritage, while teaching knowledge of and respect for other religions and faiths;

- teach individuals to overcome self-centredness and belief in the right of the strongest, while inspiring strength to stand alone, to stand up for oneself, dissent and not to acquiesce or submit to the opinions of others unwillingly;

- develop an independent and autonomous personality and, at the same time, to be able to function and work as part of a team.

A number of dual aims are listed in the core curriculum, and the final statement is:

Education must balance these dual aims. The objective is an all-round development of abilities and distinctive qualities: to conduct oneself according to accepted moral principles, to create and to act, to work with others and in harmony with nature. Education shall contribute to the building of character that gives individuals the strength to take command of their own lives, to assume duties within their society and to take care of the surrounding environment.

When greater knowledge gives greater power, more stress must be placed on the responsibility that accompanies this power. The choices to be made must be based on awareness of consequences and connections, but should also be guided by a scrutiny of values. A distinct precept of education must be to combine greater knowledge, know-how and skills with social awareness, ethical orientation and aesthetic sensibility. The young must be involved in social life, both individually and in a normally coherent way. Education shall promote ethical and critical responsibility in the young for the society and the world they live in.

The ultimate aim of education is to inspire individuals to realize their potential in ways that serve the common good; to nurture humanness in a society in development.

Operationalization of the core values in primary and lower secondary curriculum: the case for interdisciplinarity

During the 1990s, new curricula have been approved for Norwegian primary and upper secondary education. There are two main differences between the old and new curricula for compulsory education.

The first of these differences is the degree of freedom of choice regarding syllabus content and working methods. The former curriculum allowed local authorities, schools and individual classes a relatively large amount of freedom to decide and allocate the syllabus content at each level. To a great degree, the choices made corresponded to the content of the particular textbooks chosen. Therefore, there were considerable differences in the syllabuses taught from school to school, and district to district. The new national curriculum is based upon a national syllabus. Teaching objectives are set out for each stage (e.g. for age 8 to 10), and instructions about what is going to be taught are formulated.

The other important difference concerns the working methods. The old curriculum recommended pupil-oriented, challenging, working methods. However, more often than not, teaching and learning followed traditional methods. The new curriculum demands that schools, teachers and pupils implement pupil-oriented, challenging, working methods. This is evident in the curricula’s general directives, the language used to describe objectives and main features, and the emphasis upon theme-based study and project work.

The compulsory school is a nationwide ten-year school characterized by community and adapted education, which means an all-inclusive school in a co-ordinated school system based on the same curriculum. Adapted education means that it is locally and individually adapted, and takes into account gender equality and linguistic minorities.

The subject curricula are structured according to principles on centrally selected material, local material and adaptation, progression and more subject-specific teaching within a holistic and unified perspective. In the subject curricula, the selection of contents aims at promoting:

- fundamental values, cultural heritage and identity;
- creative abilities and creativity;
- all-round practical skills;
- basic knowledge and broad understanding;
- the ability to co-operate and independence;
- knowledge and awareness of nature, the environment and technology.

It is specified that fields of knowledge across subject boundaries are to be topics related to contemporary society and the individual and society.

Teaching methods must include creative activities and modes of expression, play, practical work, independent work and in-depth study, and project work at all stages.

The structure of the subject syllabi is as follows: (a) introduction; (b) subject-related aims; (c) subject-related objectives for each stage (primary, intermediate and lower secondary); (d) subject-related areas of study for each grade. There are no individual objectives or targets related to the areas of study described. The objectives are an expression of the competence of the pupils to be achieved at each stage of schooling. This provides important possibilities to schools and teachers to teach according to interdisciplinary themes and topics, in particular within the framework of project work. This focus on an interdisciplinary approach is expressed as follows in the curriculum document:

Although the curriculum is arranged by subjects, it has been designed so those subjects support each other. Aims, objectives and areas of study must be viewed in relation to each other with a view to unity and connections, both within and between subjects. At the primary level, much of the teaching is organized around themes. Structural and thematic connections between subjects and subject areas should be exploited throughout schooling. This helps pupils to develop overall understandings and to make the most of knowledge and skills across subject boundaries.

Certain fields of knowledge to be taught across subject boundaries have been identified, such as topical issues related to:

- Contemporary society - nature and environment, international understanding, human rights and peaceful co-existence, technology, information and communication technology, knowledge of the media, working life and vocational guidance, consumer knowledge, road safety.

- The individual and society - the family, sex education, homosexuality, preventive health work, drug abuse, crime prevention, bullying and violence.

The thematic structure of contents shall be based on the experience, interests and understanding of pupils, on connections with the local environment and on topicality. The methods to be used are creative activities and modes of expression in all subjects, practical and independent work, project work and in-depth study. Local work on subject curricula should mainly be decided by individual schools or co-operating schools. It shall establish the foundations for teachers’ planning their lessons at all levels. Clear connections between the centrally and locally defined educational content of the teaching must be established, and the aims of the general part of the national curriculum should be borne in mind.

Co-operation at school and with the wider community

Co-operation between pupils, teachers and the school administration is essential to the development of the school in terms of creating a learning environment and a place for work. Such co-operation can strengthen the context and possibilities for interdisciplinary perspectives and approaches, helping pupils to see the interconnectedness of learning, and the links between school and the wider community. For the pupils to be included in a social, academic and cultural community, the staff of the school must co-operate, providing a model for the pupils. Co-operation will enable pupils to learn from each other, developing social skills and gaining insight into democratic methods.

It is stressed that the school should develop general social and civic awareness and active involvement in the life of the community. By encouraging pupils to approach new tasks and challenges actively, constructively and deliberately, the school lays the foundations for further learning and helps pupils to master their future work, and their participation in family and social life.

Practical work and project work

Important emphasis is given to practical and project work. Practical work is supposed to form an integral part of all classroom activities and should be designed so as to show pupils the connections between practice and theory and between action and knowledge.

Teachers must provide adequate opportunities for independent work and in-depth study of subjects and subject areas, and in theme and project work. Emphasis should be on teaching research and analytical skills and on developing study methods and working habits which equip pupils for independent work and in-depth study, as well as group work. Teachers are expected to work closely with pupils in realizing projects.

It is stated that project work lends itself to both a single subject and an interdisciplinary approach, and can be linked to specific local themes. Teachers are expected to co-operate with each other to ensure that project work has an interdisciplinary character.

Allocation of time

School time must be allocated as appropriate to the various activities, bearing in mind the need for unity, continuity and progression in subjects considered separately and together. At lower secondary level, 20% of periods in each year must be devoted to theme and project work.


Challenges for curriculum development in our time are to find ways of integrating general education and subject syllabuses - to organize knowledge for teaching and learning into meaningful units. The need for interdisciplinarity is obvious if knowledge is to be made really meaningful in a holistic way for the individual pupil.

The Norwegian model of the curriculum for primary, lower secondary and upper secondary education might be identified as a connective curriculum model. The outcome of the curriculum reform is presently being evaluated. Research-based evaluation will give some feedback on the success of operationalizing the curricula for a better quality of learning.

The former Minister of Education in Norway, Mr Gudmund Hernes, stated that the main message of the curriculum reform can be summed up like this: The most important of all pedagogical tasks is to communicate to children and young people that they are developing continuously in such a way that they can have confidence in their own abilities. This may be seen as our common curriculum challenge for the next century as well.


Elliott, J. 1998. The curriculum experiment: meeting the challenge of social change. Milton Keynes, UK, Open University Press.

Hlebowitsh, P.S. 1993. Radical curriculum theory reconsidered. a historical approach. New York, Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Royal Norwegian Ministry of Education, Research and Church Affairs. 1993. Core curriculum for primary, secondary and adult education in Norway. Oslo.

Royal Norwegian Ministry of Education, Research and Church Affairs. 1997. Principles and guidelines for basic school education. Oslo.

Royal Norwegian Ministry of Education, Research and Church Affairs. 1997. Curriculum for the 10-year compulsory school in Norway. Oslo.

Universitetet i Oslo. Institutt for lrutdanning og skoleutvikling, 1998. IEA Civic Education Study, Report no 1. Oslo, University of Oslo.

Universitetet i Oslo. OECD-PISA Programme for International Student Assessment. Internet:

Young, M.F.D. (1998). Curriculum of the future: from the ‘new sociology of education’ to a critical theory of learning. Basingstoke, UK, Falmer Press.