Facts, Subjects, and Domains

Schools typically organize courses around subjects like art or mathematics. Why is this? It turns out that it's not because that's what is best for students. It is just what is best for the scholars who sit at the peak of the academic pyramid.

A subject is a collection of similar skills, cases, and facts that have been grouped together as an object of study. Subjects are defined by two things: a criteria for selecting which cases and facts serve as "subject matter," and a set of skills used to understand that subject matter. For example, physics is a subject that deals with interactions between matter and energy. "Doing physics" involves a set of skills which range from timing the swing of a pendulum to constructing particle accelerators. Academic researchers usually investigate a single specific class of subject matter. That's why subjects are a convenient mode of organization for them.

When teaching subjects, schools often make the mistake of separating the cases and facts (which are taught in lecture) from the skills (which are taught in labs). But teaching skills in labs apart from facts and cases tends to confuse students, and kills off their motivation for learning the skill. Likewise, teaching subject matter apart from the relevant skills is a bad idea because students find it difficult to use the subject matter in a context different than that in which they learned it. Many view history, for example, as a set of cases and facts, but this view ignores the skills that history packages, and drains the life and most of the value from it.

The problems with subjects, however, go far beyond the artificial distinction between lecture and lab. Subjects keep schools from effectively tying education into students' lives. Students do not experience their everyday world as a set of subjects; they experience it as a set of domains. Some examples are politics, trucks, and animals.

A domain is, like a subject, a collection of skills, cases, and facts. Domains, however, have a much more eclectic mode of organization. Domains organize things according to how they cluster in everyday human experience. Domains have three interesting properties. First, domains tend to cut across subjects. Any of the above domains can be used as a vehicle to teach the subjects of physics, biology, or history. Second, peoples' goals and interests tend to flow along the lines of domains, not subjects. Third, apart from superficial differences, many domains tend to be quite similar to each other. This means they can serve as convenient mechanisms to negotiate between the interests students naturally have and the subjects educators want to teach. If schools want to tap their students' interests, it means they must forego the traditional lines of subjects and reorganize around domains.

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