At the Aspirations Academies, six hours a week are dedicated to applied transdisciplinary learning – but how does it work? And should you apply something similar at your school?

This article by Steve Kenning, CEO of Aspirations Academies Trust, was originally published by TES.

Approximately five years ago, I found myself at Energy Institute High School in Houston, Texas. It was there that I was inspired to make a game-changing overhaul to the curriculum that the Aspirations Academies Trust offered to pupils.

When observing the students in their classrooms, I was blown away: they were all focused on finding solutions to real problems, utilising their knowledge from a range of subject disciplines. It quickly became apparent that these were students who would thrive in the future workplace.

As I flew back to the UK, I knew that I wanted to embed a similar approach in our schools. Since we founded the trust in 2011, we have always had one clear aim: to equip children with the skills and knowledge to help them thrive in our 21st-century world. Often, the English education system falls short doing this. 

Over two years, we developed the “no limits” curriculum, drawing on what we learnt in Texas, embedding the key skills of creative thinking, collaboration, project development and teamwork. Today, it is taught at all 16 of our schools. 

How does ‘no limits’ work?

So how does it work? Well, all of our students are taught the full national curriculum, but we push it further by timetabling single subject lessons that sit alongside lessons in Applied Transdisciplinary Learning (ATL).

Our first step in developing the curriculum was to set up a working party, which involved a teacher from each of our academies, thereby mixing primary and secondary, who all pushed forward the development of it. What they came up with has been transformational.

At the centre of the approach are the “driving questions”. Examples are things like: ”How can we, as local public health directors, prepare a response plan to the spread of the next infectious disease or public health concern?” Or ”How can we, as global citizens, understand climate change in order to initiate ecofriendly practices at our academy?”

These questions provide the purpose of learning for students and teachers, and they should be engaging for students, provoking and open-ended, with several possible answers or solutions. They immerse pupils in a problem that affects their current and future lives. In answering these, pupils are taught to apply key workplace traits, including interpersonal and communication skills.

The ATL projects run in six, one-hour lessons a week, with students working in teams of three or four. They sit alongside single subject lessons and are led by a team of teachers who will have been assigned their own cohort of students. Teachers overseeing ATL projects are given ring-fenced time to plan together and decide what the working week will look like, and what skills will need to be taught. At the end of the week, ATL students will either give a presentation or performance to demonstrate their learning. 

These lessons move completely away from teaching to the test, and teachers have the flexibility and creativity to deliver learning in a variety of contexts, for example in masterclasses or bespoke sessions to groups of students. At first, all academies followed the same assignment, but now teachers are given more autonomy in tailoring each assignment to meet the needs of their students.

The impact of transdisciplinary learning

So what sort of an impact has all of this had? Teachers have been honest with us and admit that it can be overwhelming at first to have to teach subjects they don’t specialise in. But once they start collaborating with others they become more open-minded and enjoy the ATL lessons more.

Teaching ATL has been likened to teaching at primary schools but at a higher level, and teachers have told us they like the freedom this gives them. Overall, teachers have told us ATL makes them more imaginative and confident.

ATL has also had an impact on the dynamic between teacher and pupil: the lessons create an environment of greater parity between pupils and teachers as they are both learning at the same time. Pupils taking the lessons are much more confident and engaged with their learning. ATL is driving the speaking and listening requirements of the national curriculum and is also developing vital soft skills, as students are learning the value of collaboration and teamwork.

And soon, we’re hoping to have the research to back this up. ImpactEd, the social enterprise company, has agreed to evaluate the impact of the curriculum. The initial report looked specifically at Year 7, but this was disrupted by Covid. Another study is now underway.

Initial feedback is positive: the curriculum is achieving all its aims for pupils, and that, in turn, is improving teachers’ confidence, relationships and thinking. They called our approach “ambitious, progressive and forward-thinking”.

It’s brilliant feedback, and we are all so excited to see the end report. But we aren’t standing still, and are currently training more staff to deliver ATL assignments in Year 9.

We are also exploring methods of enhancing ATL further through our latest school, Livingstone Academy Bournemouth. It’s a new free school for children aged between 4 and 18 and is our first digital academy with a focus on science, technology, engineering and maths. This school will take the “no limits” curriculum even further, and in Year 7, students will have eight hours of ATL assignments, with maths and science taught together by the same teacher.

We’re also working on an effective assessment system that is based on competencies, rather than memory. We want to explore new ways to assess exactly what students can do, rather than simply remember. ATL is about learning knowledge and applying it to real life situations, something that much current summative assessment does not do. 

If another multi-academy trust or school were looking to introduce something similar, I’d really stress the importance of vision, and setting up a working party to drive forward that vision: ours was to challenge and engage students more by making their learning relevant and to acquire and develop skills for greater employability.

Buy in from the principals is also essential. You have to have people who are prepared to take a risk and are prepared to buy in to a concept: ATL is all about a teacher who is disciplined in lots of different subjects, so we were also changing a mindset. Once you’ve got that, it’s a case of trial and development, remembering to review the steps as you take them and crucially, taking your time.

Steve Kenning is co-founder of the Aspirations Academies Trust