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It is one of the most heated debates in education forums around the world: is it better to teach lessons in discipline silos, or should schools create timetables that emphasise cross-cutting themes?

The UK nations are spit. England has separate programmes of study for disciplines like science, history and music. In Scotland there is an emphasis on overarching aims like citizenship and exploiting natural links between subjects. Wales is revising its approach.

Whichever education system we work in, is it possible to find an approach that gives the best of both worlds? Students need to be ready to ‘think like a scientist’, ‘think like a historian’ and ‘think like a mathematician’ about questions in each of these disciplines. They also need to experience the ways that scholars with different specialisms can work together on Big Questions that bridge science, religion and the wider humanities, such as:

  • ‘How can we keep each other safe during a pandemic?’
  • ‘How should we protect biodiversity?’
  • ‘What can we do to reduce loneliness?'(Billingsley, 2020; see also Billingsley, 2021)

The school inspectorate in England, Ofsted, is  currently publishing research reviews discussing each of the curriculum subjects. Their first review is about science (Ofsted, 2021), and there’s much in it that we welcome. The review highlights the importance of teaching disciplinary knowledge (knowledge about disciplines) as well as substantive knowledge (knowledge produced by each discipline).  

What’s missing in Ofsted’s review, however, is the value of different subjects working together to achieve these aims. Consider, for example, the question, ‘Why did the Titanic sink?’, and the lesson that would result if a history and science teacher collaborated so that students considered the question through the lenses of each of their specialisms. What new insights would students gain about how each discipline works by seeing both alongside the other? (This example is discussed further in Billingsley, 2021.)

Here is the first of Ofsted’s recommendations.

‘The first principle concerns the nature of the scientific discipline itself. A high-quality science education is rooted in an authentic understanding of what science is.’   

We are pleased to see an emphasis here on science as something that you do rather than simply facts that you learn. What’s not so clear in this review, however, is that learning ‘what science is’ can also happen when students make links and comparisons with other disciplines. Teaching epistemic insight (knowledge about knowledge) includes talking about the distinctive strengths and weaknesses of different disciplines and the power and limitations of knowledge today.

Doing so will help to prepare students for a wider range of career paths and open their eyes to new opportunities and courses in higher education. 

There are already, for example, programmes that explore interdisciplinary approaches to meeting sustainable development goals in solving global challenges, and workshops that look for novel therapies for Covid-19 by connecting knowledge between different disciplines.   

‘What’s missing in Ofsted’s review is the value of different subjects working together to teach disciplinary as well as substantive knowledge. What new insights would students gain about how each discipline works by seeing both alongside the other?’

Collaboration can also be a way to increase students’ resilience against misinformation. A lesson prepared by English and science teachers can help students learn how to critique the credibility of sources and the reasonableness of their claims. Of course, great care needs to be taken when choosing examples of misinformation to study. There is also the pedagogical challenge of making sure that students have understood which claims are misleading or untrue!

Our example here comes from a category we call the misapplication of knowledge: the myth that eating lemons will protect you from catching Covid. It’s true that vitamin C helps to maintain a healthy immune system. However, the Covid-19 virus infects unvaccinated people (including people getting adequate vitamin C), despite the protection that the immune system provides. If you’re interested in joining this research and helping to test this workshop, please let us know!  

We will be hosting a ‘hot topic’ at the BERA Annual Conference 2021 to discuss these ideas on, Tuesday 14 September between 16.00 and 17.30. The session is called, ‘Ofsted’s subject reviews: A symposium to discuss and share relevant research and opportunities introduced by members of the Biology Education Research Group’. 

Click here for more details about the BERA Annual Conference 2021, including the full programme.


Billingsley, B. (2021). Epistemic insight: Engaging with big questions [Video]. YouTube.  

Billingsley, B. (2020). The role and relevance of science in addressing global concerns. School Science Review102(378), 27–28.  

Ofsted (2021, April 29). Ofsted publishes science research review – the first in a series of subject reviews [Press release].

More content by Berry Billingsley and Nagamani Bora