Mary Anning Curriculum
Feb 7, 2023

How A New, Multidisciplinary Science Curriculum Helps Students and Teachers Alike

By providing teachers with high-quality, multidisciplinary learning resources, schools can improve student engagement and help teachers learn new techniques simultaneously.

By Bonnie Zahl

Children love to ask questions, and they have a natural desire to explore and learn about things that matter to them. Yet as they get older, the educational settings where formal learning happens begin to silo the knowledge and their learning experiences into subjects and disciplines. Children’s inclination to make connections, especially between seemingly disparate topics, can be a powerful trait to be leveraged for engagement and learning, but it can also present a teaching challenge. When children’s interests extend beyond the confines of a subject, how can we engage them and fully explore the context of what they’re studying?

For reasons that often have to do with management resources such as classroom spaces, equipment, and teachers’ time, formal education in schools often has to de-prioritize education that follows the connected and far-ranging way that children are naturally inclined to think. In schools, students move from subject to subject and from classroom to classroom: history, geography, art, music, the sciences, math, English, and modern languages. While there might be greater freedom for teachers of younger age groups to form these connections through topic-based approaches, teachers are not always equipped to help students understand how there are in fact different ways of knowing which are represented by different subjects and disciplines. An unintended consequence of this is that students lose sight of how what they’re learning in schools is connected to the real world.

One possible technique to help students form connections between different subjects is to use a topic-based approach. This often involves identifying a cross-cutting topic (“Antartica” or “Ancient Greece” or “Civil War”), and covering specific content from different subjects that relate to that topic.

We often see this approach in primary school education where a class is taught by the same teacher throughout, and the teacher is able to draw out the connections between the different content that is covered. However, unless the teacher is explicit and skilled in helping students appreciate that there are different ways of knowing, what is taught in each subject in relation to that topic still remains separated from each other, and the connection is purely topical, rather than uncovering the deeper connections between different types of knowledge. A deeper engagement with the nature of knowledge from different disciplines can also put additional pressure on already overworked teachers to become familiar with content that may be new to them, to understand the underlying philosophies behind different ways of knowing, to figure out how to connect what seems to be disparate subjects and disciplines, and to design new lesson plans so that they can implement this education effectively.

Although a vision of an education that capitalizes on students’ natural curiosity for big questions and that highlights the interconnectedness of different ways of knowing is appealing, there are difficult practical challenges for making this a reality. How can teachers be equipped to provide an interdisciplinary education to students, when they are not able to be experts on every subject?

Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Big Questions in Classrooms supported a team from the Association for Science Education (ASE) to create a unique set of professional development and classroom resources for teaching evolution in primary school classrooms. These resources focused on evolution because the topic has been identified by teachers as one that they find particularly challenging to teach at the primary school level, but the interdisciplinary approach has potential to be applied to a range of topics in the sciences.

ASE’s Key Moments in History: A Fossil Hunter’s Story begins with the story of Mary Anning, an English paleontologist from the early 19th century who made her first significant find at age 12 on the Jurassic Coast in England. After making the discovery in 1811, her employer stole the fossil from her, and for many years she was not credited with its discovery. The curriculum uses this piece of history as a starting point for teaching about some big ideas in science including fossils and evolution, the nature of scientific inquiry, and the nature of scientific, historical, and religious knowledge. The resources include an award-winning short film, titled Sea Dragon, primary and secondary source materials, games, and presentations, all of which are available for teachers to engage with and use in classrooms through an interactive PDF.

The goal is to provide teachers with the materials they need to teach evolution effectively in an interdisciplinary way by linking the concept of evolution to topics in history, religious education, English, and drama. For instance, the curriculum provides an opportunity to discuss the beliefs and social structures of the early 19th century, which then also becomes a method for engaging with contemporary questions students might have. Discussing historical religious beliefs, for instance, can become a way for students to think about what they may have learned in their own upbringing. Rather than telling students not to talk about the creation story in the Bible or the Qu’ran during a class on evolution, the story of Mary Anning can be used as a way to fuel a discussion about how scientific discoveries challenged people’s beliefs at that time. Because the curriculum is multidisciplinary, it introduces students not only to the concept and the topic of evolution, but it gives them what they need to understand it.

The film at the center of the curriculum was developed alongside the pedagogical resources, piloted at ten schools, and then the feedback from those teachers was reincorporated into the curriculum. In this way, the curriculum was tailored to suit the real needs of teachers in actual classrooms. Since its development, it has been used in more than 30 schools with positive feedback from students and teachers.

In particular, students and teachers have highlighted its dialogic aspect and its ability to drive learning through conversation among the students. This is encouraged through things like watching the film, and then role-playing their own stories and how they would relate to the events portrayed. This not only helps students practice the concepts they’re learning, but also engages with them creatively and ethically. These sorts of classroom practices are helpful in engaging students who otherwise might not participate, either because they’re shy or are hesitant about the material.

The curriculum is intended to not only help students learn about evolution effectively, but to help teachers learn new methods of teaching. Professional development that otherwise might be relegated to after-school workshops is incorporated directly into the resources, and aims to help teachers bring more multidisciplinary approaches to education in general. Science never happens in a vacuum, so it’s critical that students learn to think about it in context. This means discussing evolution as a concept, but also understanding how religious beliefs, the shape of society, the functioning of museums and institutes, and attitudes towards women shaped scientific discoveries and their impact on society.

The goal of the curriculum is to help teachers guide students to engage more like historians, scientists, writers, geographers, or musicians. In other words, rather than simply supplying information, teachers and curriculums foster students’ ability to think about and apply their knowledge in flexible and appropriate ways. When is it helpful to think like a scientist, a historian, or a film critic? As students engage with the different types of knowledge that these resources provide and recognize that there are in fact different ways of knowing, our hope is that they will, in the long run, become more reflective thinkers and effective problem-solvers.

The success of the Mary Anning curriculum can be duplicated across other complicated scientific topics. By providing teachers not only with high-quality, multidisciplinary curriculum but also a way of learning new pedagogical approaches, these sorts of curricula help improve student outcomes beyond the specific topics they cover. Over time, changes to curricula can help shift education away from treating children’s minds like empty vessels to pour information into, and towards engaging them as agents in an immersive learning process.

Read ASE Director of Curriculum Innovation and Sea Dragon Executive Producer Marianne Cutler's conversation with journalist Benjamin Reeves here.

Bonnie Zahl is the Principal Advisor for Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Big Questions in Classrooms, and also provides consultation to the Foundation on other areas of grantmaking. She is a Senior Research Coordinator at the University of Oxford.