Learning at the Centre

Revisiting interdisciplinary learning pivoting on approaches to learning skills brings the metaphor of an alloy. An alloy is created when two or more elements are physically fused into a new substance, but it retains the properties of something strong, a metal, even though the alloy itself may contain nonmetal elements (Helmenstine, 2017).

(One of the liberating features of our operating language of learning is our use of metaphors. Our language gives shape to our thinking, and the metaphors we use to capture thinking might have significant impact on actions taken.)

This definition of an alloy brings to mind interdisciplinary units of inquiry, when the learning not only has disciplinary relevance but also has transferable approaches to learning skills. How might the fusion of elements for the purpose of illuminating experiences of approaches to learning skills look like?

A unit that is such an alloy combines the elements of conceptual learning, contextual learning, approaches to learning skills and what happens when these are fused in a controlled process into desired results.

The context of the unit

The inquiry targets the conceptual performance of change, its key concept. Students for which the structured inquiry was designed have behavioral challenges, which negatively impact learning and relationships with both adults and other students in the group.

The aims of the teaching team is to engage the students in an inquiry into personal efficacy and agency, attitudes, and motivation, explorations within the global context Identities and relationships.

The choice of the global context was not a difficult one; to frame learning toward taking action was inherent in the performance of the key concept change.

In order to be something, students had to do towards that goal. By stating the rationale for the unit this way, it is clear to the teaching team that action was a performance goal of the unit and would greatly influence its design.

The conceptual focus

The key concept is change and the related concepts are patterns and relationships.

The content focus

Since the unit goal was to create connections between learning and behavior, it was clear to the team that learning about the brain and its role in the formation of habits at a neurological, biological level was necessary. Students would learn about how the brain works, how neural networks form and are strengthened through rehearsal, and apply their learning toward explaining the development of performance skills such as dribbling a basketball or solving a quadratic equation as well as how we behave toward peers or adults.

The statement of inquiry

The big idea for the unit was stated as Changes in how a person thinks can lead to changes in behaviour.

Considerations for the scope of the inquiry included how much time it could be allocated (about 450 minutes); the age group (middle school); the students’ prior experience in the approaches to learning skills targeted in the unit.

The students also had limited experiences in inquiry-based learning, so necessarily the process of inquiring had to be embedded within the unit as structured inquiry. Teachers chose the inquiry questions and the resources.

The construct of the unit

The focus of the unit really were the approaches to learning skills.

In order for students to… They must…
demonstrate knowledge and understanding paraphrase accurately


develop research skills evaluate and select information sources and digital tools based on their appropriateness to specific tasks
develop research skills understand the benefits and limitations of personal sensory learning when accessing, processing and recalling information
develop research skills, create references and citations and construct a bibliography
analyse ideas draw reasonable conclusions and generalizations
think critically propose and evaluate a solution


The unit assessment

Since the key concept of change and the related concepts of patterns and relationships suggested a summative assessment which had to demonstrate conceptual understanding, the highlighted ATL skills, and a performance of action, the summative task was designed as an action plan on a behaviour which the student wanted to become extinct and replace with more effective behaviour.

The statement of inquiry explores the relationship between brain and behavior, but also between how we behave and how others relate to us. Through understanding the ways people feel, think and act, students might begin to understand how behaviors can shape our identities through rehearsal, and how understanding ways that mental habits form might help us to change our selves and our relationships for the better.

The action plan expected as a result of the inquiry illustrates the relationships between the learning and the action students will take at the completion of the unit.

The products also illustrate student understanding of the concepts; skills in research and presentation; and dispositions of sustaining learning and taking action on learning, which may be a description of the disposition of resilience.

When the learning comes together in this unit, we might see the following elements:

Learning at the Center
Placing ATL skills at the centre creates a controlled fusion of elements toward desirable results.


Applying their research into a personally meaningful action creates a problem which approaches complexity for a 12-year old. Still developing skills in controlling impulsivity and prioritizing, the student is asked to rehearse these skills in self-management through application of other, more cognitive skills such as research based decision-making.


When the learner is presented with set of concepts that challenge the current default knowledge, there is a messy collision of ideas, which now the learner has to make sense of, negotiate, analyze, and synthesize into new forms. The collision of concepts creates opportunities to revise mental models into new ones, gain new perspectives and points of view.


The performance task allows for an aspirational process, when the learner has to negotiate the change that’s desired through a series of behaviors that must be learned. How will the learner bring the brain to serve this transformational goal? How will the alternative behavior impact relationships? There is an element of awareness that must be brought to consciousness in these considerations of the performance task.


The learning in this is scalable. The performance of action as a result of the unit can be as ambitious, as in an entire strategy, or it can be a single skill. The student is able to scale the performance according to his or her assessment of readiness, skill mastery, knowledge and understanding, confidence and contextual constraints.

The idea of an alloy suggests that although we might easily think of the cognitive skills as the metallic – unyielding, strong, enduring—elements of our alchemy in interdisciplinary units, we can produce stronger amalgam by blending in the ‘non-metal’ elements, those soft skills such as self-management and reflective thinking and transform a unit into a steely fusion of holistic goodness.


Photo credit: Rock climber hand hold on steel twisted rope at steel bolt eye anchored in rock by Rdonar. Used with permission.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

2 thoughts

  1. Aloha this is fabulous – I particularly like the contruct of the unit where the criteria are used as a catalyst for learning and extended through the approaches to learning.

    1. Thanks, Diane. It was very clear that the unit needed to draw on the following criteria:
      Individuals and Societies Criterion A.
      i. demonstrate knowledge and understanding of subject-specific content and concepts through descriptions, explanations and examples
      Individuals and Societies Criterion B. (VISIBLE in tasks 1 and 2)
      i. formulate/choose a clear and focused research question, explaining its relevance
      ii. formulate and follow an action plan to investigate a research question
      iii. use methods to collect and record relevant information
      iv. evaluate the research process and resutls, with guidance
      Individuals and Societies Criterion C. (VISIBLE in tasks 1, 2 and 3)
      i. communicate information and ideas using an appropriate style for the audience and purpose
      iii. document sources of informatino using a recognized convention
      Individuals and Societies Criterion D
      iv. interpret different perspectives and their implications
      (VISIBLE in task 4)

      And the super-heroes in the teaching team includes the mighty librarian and the awesome counselor!


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