Step Across the Hall with Interdisciplinary Teaching

The class of eighth graders have been reading Animal Farm with their language arts teacher at the same time they have studied government forms with their social studies teacher. Now groups of students work to prepare their presentations while both of their teachers hover, answering last minute questions.

A group of students steps up to present their adaptation of the novel, as both teachers watch and assess, providing feedback from the perspectives of each discipline. The students shift easily between textual and historical analysis, applying symbols to their own experience as the story comes alive. This is interdisciplinary learning in action.

Real world problems require solutions that span across multiple academic disciplines. This is contrary to many classrooms, restricted in an age of a carefully structured curriculum. Proponents of interdisciplinary teaching believe that to see literature as separate from the social sciences or math does a disservice to each.

At a time when the art of teaching threatens to become a narrow checklist of standards and exams, interdisciplinary teaching offers hope. Some progressive schools are now turning back to interdisciplinary teaching to help students form connections and build enduring understanding. The International Baccalaureate now recommends one interdisciplinary unit per grade in their Middle Years Program. This encourages teachers to build connections, often unexpected, between two or more subject areas.

The College Board also promotes interdisciplinary teaching with its Advanced Placement courses, providing a toolkit to educators for linking AP curricula. Though students enrolled across a variety of electives may pose challenges for planning, any opportunity to integrate disciplines will create, as the College Board describes it, “real world learning, not isolated educational experiences.” Other related approaches such as multidisciplinary, cross disciplinary and transdisciplinary teaching are also possible.

Dr. Heidi Jacobs, director of the Curriculum Mapping Institute and author of Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Practice, defines interdisciplinary learning as “a knowledge view and curriculum approach that consciously applies methodology and language from more than one discipline to examine a central theme, issue, problem, topic, or experience.” While Dr. Jacobs promotes interdisciplinary learning, she cautions against both the “Potpourri Problem” in which disciplines contribute in a scattered way and the “Polarity Problem” in which the interdisciplinary approach leads to a narrowing of the discipline, such as reducing math to performing rote calculations for biology labs. To avoid both problems, Dr. Jacobs reminds teachers that interdisciplinary units must:

  • Organize along a scope and sequence
  • Include a cognitive taxonomy to encourage thinking skills
  • Contain behavioral indicators of attitudinal change
  • Embrace a solid evaluation scheme
  • Use both discipline-field-based and interdisciplinary experiences

Although it can be uncomfortable at first, breaking out of subject-isolation is often professionally rewarding, easier than you’d expect and just plain fun. Despite interest in the concept of interdisciplinary teaching, teachers may not know how to get started.    

The first step in interdisciplinary teaching is to communicate with your fellow teachers. Explore the curriculum of other subjects and open a dialog. You are looking for conceptual and thematic connections or skills that cross over. The key is to step outside your own classroom and form connections. Here a few unit ideas to get you started:

  • The Physics of Stringed Instruments from the Middle Ages (physics, music, social studies)
  • Poetry and Song Across Cultures (English, foreign language, music)
  • Measuring the Performance (math, physical education)
  • Eco-movements and the Planet (biology, English, social studies, math)

Next you must agree to plan an interdisciplinary unit together. Identify the general concepts that unite both disciplines and construct some statements of truth that will be explored through the lens of each academic subject. Not to leave standards behind, you then identify which skills in the scope and sequence will be developed to bring the students to this new level of understanding. With this established, you are ready to plan for interconnected student activities and assessments.

Don’t let Common Core Standards hold you back either. According to Liana Heitin’s article in Education Week, Teachers have begun to realize that the Common Core focus can easily allow the integration of other disciplines. Collaboration can be challenging yet rewarding, as the teachers involved can attest to.

Interdisciplinary assessment allows a single, significant assessment in multiple subjects. Rather than decrease academic rigor, students are challenged to apply their skills and make knowledge connections between academic areas. The goal moves from quantity of work completed to the quality of learning that creates deeper, contextual understanding.

So with classes just around the corner, why not enrich your students’ experience by connecting with other disciplines?