An empirical evaluation of ‘big questions’ as an organisational framework for interdisciplinary social studies in a Scottish high school
7 Dec 2022
This research project assessed the impact on pupils and staff of a school-designed integrated social studies curriculum, aiming to apply insights from Big History and Big Questions to offer pupils a curriculum which both sparked their curiosity and created a meaningful foundation to further study. The project used examples of pupil work and feedback from pupil voice questionnaires to evaluate impact, while minutes of planning meetings and anonymised staff surveys provided insight into the benefits and challenges of creating such an interdisciplinary and expansive approach to learning.
The project was funded by the 2020–2021 British Curriculum Forum Curriculum Investigation Grant.
This research project was one of three to be awarded a British Curriculum Forum Curriculum Investigation Grant for 2020–2021. The project was a collaboration between a high school in Central Scotland and a university-based researcher which aimed to assess the impact on pupils and staff of a school-designed integrated social studies curriculum. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence suggests that schools should aim to develop links between social studies (history, geography and modern studies) but provides little guidance to schools about how this might be achieved. In many schools, integration is either undertheorised or non-existent; this project aimed, instead, to apply insights from Big History (Christian, 2004) and Big Questions (Harlen, 2015) to offer pupils a curriculum which both sparked their curiosity and created a meaningful foundation for further study.
The school’s Big Questions approach to social studies was taught to all 135 pupils in secondary 1 (S1). Pupils were taught in mixed-ability groups and had the same social studies teacher for three 50-minute periods per week. The curriculum programme was divided into five Big Questions and one (‘Why do humans live together?’) was identified as the focus for the data-collection stage of the project. The project focused on both the planning and development of the project and pupils’ experiences of it. Two research questions guided our work:
What are the benefits and limitations of a Big Questions approach to pupil learning in social studies?
How might a Big Questions approach encourage collaborative working in integrated social studies faculties?
The project used examples of pupil work and feedback from pupil voice questionnaires to evaluate impact, while minutes of planning meetings and anonymised staff surveys provided insight into the benefits and challenges of creating such an interdisciplinary and expansive approach to learning. The project began in October 2020 but was significantly disrupted by the second national Covid-19 lockdown between January and April 2021.
As a result, data collection was delayed until the spring of 2022.
Data from pupils yielded two important insights. First, that pupils understand the relevance of the Big Questions to the challenges of our time. Second, pupils recognise the importance of multidisciplinary thinking in both Big Questions and in addressing these questions. Also significant was pupils’ keen ability to distinguish between ‘enjoyment’ and ‘importance’ in their learning. When asked what they had ‘enjoyed most’, pupils tended to describe a particular lesson or activity, but when asked what they thought was ‘important’ they were more likely to offer a concept. This finding suggests not only that pupils rightly see enjoyment and significance as conceptually distinct, but also that they understand that Big Questions can be tackled from a multidisciplinary perspective only. Unsurprisingly, pupils identified climate change as the pre-eminent challenge facing humanity. Pupils tended to see problems in a multidisciplinary – rather than interdisciplinary – perspective, continuing to view ‘volcanoes as geography’ and ‘slavery as history’.
A Covid-related delay to fieldwork meant that the teachers who taught the programme in 2021–2022 were not the same teachers who had originally planned it in 2020–2021. Lacking the insight into the planning and purpose of the project, some teachers suggested that they had found it difficult to teach. This finding suggests that purpose, rationale, planning and collaboration throughout the planning–teaching–assessment cycle is an important determinant of success for these kinds of curriculum approaches.
Dr Joseph Smith is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Stirling. His research interests concern the politics of the history curriculum and teachers’ identities as curriculum makers. He has published in The British Educational Research...