Whole School Projects:

Engaging Imaginations Through Interdisciplinary Inquiry

Kieran Egan with Bob Dunton & Gillian Judson


“When God created the universe,” a teacher said to me recently, “She didn’t divide it into subjects.” The universe of knowledge, however, is almost invariably divided into the familiar set of subjects in the curriculum. There have, of course, been attempts to introduce children into knowledge of the world and human experience that avoid the usual divisions into subject areas (e.g. Postman & Weingartner, 1969), but none of them has really been entirely satisfactory and none has certainly been sufficiently attractive that they have shaped the curriculum of typical schools. Some divisions have to be made, of course, as one can’t simply take on the whole world of knowledge at one go, and the division into subjects seems also to have suggestive philosophical (e.g. Hirst, 1974) support.The danger many people have pointed to in the subject-divided curriculum is that each subject comes to be seen by students not as a part of a whole, but somehow as distinct bits that never come together in any clear way in the student’s mind. It’s the fragmentation of coherence that is seen as a problem of the subject divided curriculum for many students.

Well, this is perhaps a rather labored way of introducing the purpose of this book. It proposes a way of addressing this problem, but also a number of others that are produced by our current ways of organizing schools; inadvertently aspects of current school organization diminish the educational experience they are designed to provide. Any organization, especially one as vast as our school systems, is bound to involve some compromises between administrative necessity and educational experience. Sometimes, though, the compromises are caused more by administrative convenience than necessity, and in those cases a bit of ingenuity might enable us to preserve more of the educational value.

This book is designed to describe a project that can add a lot more to schools’ educational value than it costs in administrative inconvenience. Let me very briefly sketch an outline of the “whole school projects” I am proposing and then we can look at other benefits and educational values that can result from them.

The idea is that each school will take on a particular topic to study for three years. The whole school will be involved in the study. The topic might involve local phenomena—such as “plants and animals of the desert” if the school is in Alamogordo, New Mexico, “sheep farming” if it is in Walworth, New Zealand, “water resources” if it is in West Vancouver, Canada, “the Columbia River Gorge” if it is near Portland, Oregon, “the castle” if it is in Ludlow, England, or “the Yarra River” if it is in Melbourne, Australia, or the natural and cultural environment of three or four blocks around the school if it is in a typical suburban setting, etc. Alternatively, it could involve quite distant things—such topics as “the Solar System”, or “desertification and attempts to combat it,” “ocean life,” “migrating animals,” and so on. Criteria for what will be the kind of topic that can suit the project will be explored in Chapter 3, and examples of appropriate topics will be explored.

All students and all classes will be involved. The rest of the curriculum will continue much as it is, but some time—maybe no more than one or two hours each week––will be given over during which students and teachers build up their knowledge of the chosen topic, directed towards a large-scale final product. While the WSP is distinct from and is in addition to the regular curriculum, the “whole school project” can help achieve many of the year’s curriculum objectives in mathematics, science, art, history, and so on. Any teacher can choose to incorporate their curriculum aims into the project study, even when those aims also include meeting externally mandated achievement standards.

Ideally the “whole school” referred to is conceived as extending from the beginning of elementary school to the end of high school, though obviously such an ideal will be very rarely achievable. Most schools, of course, are elementary schools, or middle schools, or high schools. One of the benefits of the Whole School Project comes from students of different ages working together on a common topic. Just to add to what may seem the daunting administrative burden required to implement such a project, I will be suggesting that local elementary schools might team up with middle schools to jointly pursue their “whole school” topic. This might be too difficult for many schools, of course, and the whole school projects can certainly be run within an individual elementary, middle, or high school, acknowledging that high schools, initially, will likely think such projects are too much of a distraction from their tighter curricula constraints.

I will describe the plan in more detail in Chapter 2, and the problems it can help solve in Chapter 1. In Chapter 3 I will discuss what kinds of topics will serve to provide an adequate “whole school project” for at least three years of study, listing a set of criteria that a suitable project will need to meet. Incorporating what may seem a large-scale addition to the curriculum will no doubt seem to many educators impossible, or at least enormously difficult, and there are certainly a number of reasonable objections to implementing such a program. In Chapter 4 I will raise and try to respond adequately to the main objections that I have heard or imagined, and try to show that the apparent enormous challenge posed by WSPs are really nothing like as daunting as they may seem initially. Chapters 5 and 6 will explore a number of practical matters concerned with setting such a project going and keeping students’ interest sustained, especially as they might work sometimes in class groupings and sometimes in cross-age groupings. In Chapter 7 teachers and the administrator who implemented a whole school project that is underway at the time of writing, describe how Corbett school in Oregon has overcome the hurdles considered in Chapter 4 and how it incorporates the principles for practical implementation described in Chapters 5 and 6. The enormous success of this “case study” at least undercuts claims that implementing such programs is impossible, and, as Bob Dunton, an initiator of that project, indicates, it is nothing like as difficult as it might initially seem. In the final chapter I will consider some of the educational principles that support this kind of project and provide a sound educational foundation for it.

Here is a simple list of some of the benefits that I think implementing this kind of project can achieve. I will explore these in detail later and also suggest others. Whole school projects can:

  • contribute powerfully to community building within the school. The project provides a distinct joint purpose for all members of the school community;
  • build appreciation for the abilities of others;
  • help students, teachers, and administrators discover how individual contributions to a coherent large-scale project can produce enormous results;
  • help students, teachers, and administrators discover how individual contributions to a large-scale project can give pride to all contributors for more than just their own individual contributions;
  • enable everyone involved to recognize that all kinds of learning style and kinds of intelligence and ability-level can play an important part in constructing the whole;
  • enable students to understand the gradual growth of something very big from many small contributions—“a stone upon a stone, a word upon a word”;
  • encourage cooperation among students of different social groups, skill levels, cultural backgrounds, and classes;
  • expose students to activities they might not otherwise experience and potentially foster new interests;
  • help students see how different “subjects” in school work together or overlap when engaged on a large-scale interdisciplinary project;
  • give pride in the visible product of the completed project, whether in the form of a book, a multi-media presentation, a mural in the school, or all of these or other forms in which the work of the whole group is made visible for them and presented to others, whether parents or school board officials, or other citizens, or all these;
  • build an emotional and imaginative engagement in students’ learning about the world.

Whole school projects are hardly new, of course. But nearly all whole school projects that I am aware of focus on some social or behavioral purpose, like ecological sustainability, or eliminating drugs, or prevention of bullying and other “anti-social” behavior, or art projects, health issues, recycling, and other worthy social goals. Also many schools have adopted year-long “themes” of various kinds, which also overlap somewhat with this proposal. Typical “themes,” however, tend to be focused on some relevant social concern—environmental issues again, aboriginal populations, behavioral problems, and so on, and they are very rarely expected to continue for more than a year. The kind of projects I will propose are designed, rather, to contribute to educational purposes that are sometimes not adequately achieved in schools because of how schools are typically organized. Each of the points above has a distinct educational value to which “whole school projects” can directly contribute.

The costs of implementing such projects will loom large, especially to anyone who has never done it. How does one build in something on this scale to a school whose organizational and other resources may be already stretched to the limit? I hope that by the end of the book, if you stick with me, it will be clear that the costs of such whole school projects need not be great and the educational benefits to the students’ learning and the sense of community for the school as a whole far outweigh any costs. The hard part, as with most things, is beginning. But you’ve read this far, so we can begin together.