Subject-based learning: let’s blow this baby wide open

By |2020-05-08T16:08:16+00:00March 31st, 2017|Dr James Mannion|5 Comments

Hi everyone. My name is James and I have thought there should be more to education than an almost exclusive focus on a narrow band of traditional subject disciplines for ooh, I’d say about 12 years now. Some people say this makes me a “progressive”, and that therefore any ideas I have are silly. I don’t really know what progressive means, but if it’s the opposite of regressive then sign me up!

One thing people say about progressives (whatever they are) is that they want to do away with subject-based learning. However – in my case at least – nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I love subjects so much, I want to see many more of them in our schools.

My thinking is as follows: 1) Schools have been focused almost exclusively on teaching a narrow band of traditional subjects for as long as anyone can remember; 2) I don’t know if you’ve seen the news ever, but the world is in something of a mess. Conclusion: since we’re only alive for the blink of an eye, maybe we should try relaxing some of the odd top-down controls on what people can learn and when, which I lambasted in my last blog post.

Before anyone starts tweeting pictures of tin foil hats, I should clarify – I don’t mean to suggest that the world’s mess is directly caused by the fact that our education system focuses almost exclusively on a narrow band of traditional subject disciplines. Indeed, I am quite persuaded that the study of traditional subject disciplines enables at least some good things to happen. But it’s not helping enough for my liking.

Being a solution-focused kind of guy, I’ve made a list with a few suggestions for subjects that we could bring into schools. This is not intended as an exhaustive list, and obviously these couldn’t all be studied in an ongoing way – there wouldn’t be enough time – but perhaps we could start by running short 6-week short courses in them, and see how that goes. I would love to hear your thoughts on this, reader.

Active citizenship

  • Analysing the media
  • Argumentation
  • Consensus building
  • Debating
  • Finding sources
  • Interview techniques
  • Journalism
  • Logical fallacies
  • Making films
  • Philosophical enquiry
  • Photography
  • Photojournalism
  • Public speaking
  • Shorthand
  • Thinking and reasoning (eg the excellent outgoing OCR course)
  • Touch typing
  • Using a library
  • Verifying sources


  • Artificial intelligence
  • Coding
  • Cryptocurrencies
  • Cyber security
  • Ethical hacking
  • Internet studies
  • Linux
  • Making movies
  • Open source software
  • Programming
  • Robotics
  • Web design

Health and well-being

  • Cooking
  • First aid
  • Managing your finances
  • Medicine
  • Mental health
  • Parenting skills
  • Physical health

Enterprise and entrepreneurship

  • Applying for funding
  • Blogging and social media
  • Building a professional website
  • Customer relations
  • Events management
  • Graphic design – using GIMP
  • Leadership and management
  • Marketing and advertising
  • Project management
  • Securing investment
  • Starting a business
  • Tax and taxation
  • Writing for different audiences

Learning-related courses

  • Philosophy of education
  • The psychology of motivation
  • The cognitive science of learning
  • The art and science of goal setting
  • Giving and receiving feedback
  • Education research – what do we know about what works?
  • Managing your own learning
  • How to find reputable sources on the internet

Politics and economics

  • Animal rights
  • Campaigning
  • Crime and punishment
  • Domestic politics
  • Equality and fairness
  • Ethics
  • Global politics
  • Government and politics
  • History of politics
  • International relations
  • Law and the justice system
  • Local politics
  • Making sense of current affairs
  • Tolerance and discrimination
  • The history of protest
  • The history of trades union
  • Human rights

Taster courses for other subject disciplines

  • Astronomy
  • Classics
  • Economics
  • Electronics
  • History of art
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

This is all just top of the head stuff – no doubt this list reflects my own interests and biases. I would love to hear more suggestions for courses – please comment below if you have any ideas.

If expanding the subject base is the answer, what is the question?

I know all about the pressures on school leaders, but surely we can find an hour a week on the timetable where young people could explore some of these ideas? Obviously there would have to be some kind of quality assurance – for example, there could be a noticeboard where teachers can pitch ideas for courses, and if enough students express an interest then the teacher puts a 6-week course together and then has to present to governors and have it ratified or whatever. We’s only need to find an hour on the timetable – to begin with, at least.

The question facing us is not how, but why. And we can answer that with a question to any parent:

If there was a local school that offered courses like this, would you send your child there?

I know I would.


  1. markquinn1968 April 2, 2017 at 7:08 am - Reply

    James, abolish GCSEs then all of this is possible. In the meantime, at least for schools struggling to maintain their standing in the state sector, we can hardly expand our subject provision.

    • rethinkinged April 2, 2017 at 10:33 pm - Reply

      Or just abolish league tables?! I don’t see why we couldn’t start running some of this stuff at Key Stage 3 – an hour a week? Surely…

  2. […] are able to choose from a range of short, optional courses in topics such as those suggested in my last post, at a range of levels (introductory, intermediate, advanced and self-managed, […]

  3. eagerbookworm April 11, 2017 at 10:01 pm - Reply

    This is not a particularly coherent thought, but some of these are covered within subjects, sometimes explicitly, often implicitly. As an English teacher I have covered all of the following to my certain knowledge, and possibly some others I wouldn’t like to swear to.

    Analysing the media
    Interview techniques
    Making films
    Philosophical enquiry
    Public speaking
    Thinking and reasoning
    Using a library
    Marketing and advertising
    Writing for different audiences
    Managing your own learning
    How to find reputable sources on the internet
    Animal rights (as a subject for writing or analysing text)
    Crime and punishment (ditto)
    Domestic politics (ditto)
    Equality and fairness (ditto)
    Global politics (ditto)
    Law and the justice system (ditto)
    Making sense of current affairs
    Tolerance and discrimination
    Human rights

    Obviously not all of those involve in-depth coverage, but one of the things I love about English teaching (done properly) is that it’s NOT narrow. I know you mean narrow band as in ‘not many’ subjects, but I want to just defend the notion that many of the current subjects are broad disciplines in themselves. We should not forget to celebrate the great things that can still be taught under those umbrellas.

    That said, I think you rightly identify two key strands that are not necessarily covered explicitly. One is practical life skills. Mortages, tax, money-management, insurance, how to do job interviews, how to ‘sell’ yourself, how to make websites, how to cook, parent etc; all of those are skills we probably need to cover in schools, and we need to find the space to do that. Secondly there are a lot of new skills you identify that are a result of the speed of technological development in the world and are not included because the education system has not moved fast enough to accommodate them, for the most part. (I’d like to give a little shout out there to the Language and Literature A level syllabus(es) however as I know that for years they have included blogs, websites, podcasts etc as part of their specifications and have always been willing to move with the times; I suspect the same is true of A level Language though I’ve not taught it.) I don’t think those skills can be adequately covered in an extra hour a week; I think some of those (to do with media handling, source-finding, critical skills, etc) need to be fully integrated into education in a long-term, fully-realised, fully-worked-out manner. Whether that will ever happen remains to be seen!

    If I have a criticism of your list, it’s that it lacks a creative element – dance, drama, music, art etc are already being sidelined, but I think there is a room not just for history of art but specific teaching on the creative process and how to develop a creative voice. I try and do that through teaching creative writing, but I think it’s a really important thing for self-esteem and has a relevance for arts, sciences, businesses, the works.

    As a final thought (I did say this was incoherent!) I think some of your above list are lessons that children learn through participation in things bigger than themselves. Drama productions, the planning and delivery of charity events, giving presentations, debating intra-school and inter-school, completing science challenges in groups etc; these are opportunities that we should be striving to give to children so they are learning these often practical skills like leadership and teamwork in practical, real-life situations.

    • rethinkinged April 14, 2017 at 5:08 pm - Reply

      Hi Vicki. Thanks for your comment and interesting perspective. I agree it’s important to bear in mind that the ‘narrow band of subjects’ does cover a broad range of stuff, and I wouldn’t want to characterise them as narrow. That said, I wonder if students had had a 6 week booster on topics such as animal rights, crime and punishment, politics etc – one would imagine that their writing in English would be so much better informed…!

      I also agree very much with your comments about the need for learning to take place in real world contexts wherever possible…

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