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Avoiding Common Pitfalls in Interdisciplinary Learning

It’s May now, and at my school, we just concluded our "May Mini-Mester", which is at least one week of pure project-based interdisciplinary learning. As teachers and I planned for this event, we kept our attention focused on authentic interdisciplinary learning and avoided the pitfalls that usually result in surface-level understanding and dessert-like projects. 


My Love for Interdisciplinary Learning

When I did my student teaching nearly twenty years ago, I remember observing a high school class taught by two teachers: the English teacher and the History teacher. They read historical fiction novels and learned about the history and context while practicing their literary analysis and writing skills. I thought this was the absolute most genius idea I had ever seen. It was bringing history to life! Appreciating literature for its representation of reality! This approach was labeled “interdisciplinary learning.” However, two decades into my career, I realized that while this class was innovative for its time, and students were engaged and excited to be there, it was not actually interdisciplinary learning. 


Why Interdisciplinary Learning Matters

The interdisciplinary approach was developed to respond to the criticism that 21st-century education is not preparing students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers and that many of the jobs and careers arising cannot be categorized as any one discipline. If you look at the current most in-demand jobs listed by Forbes, data scientists, market research analysts, and even physical therapists are good examples of jobs that have evolved over time and require the unique integration of different fields.


Interdisciplinary learning has swung on the educational pendulum much like many other fresh new instructional ideas. Regardless, some clear purposes for this approach have emerged:

Skills-Based Goals of Interdisciplinary Learning

Experience-Based Goals  of Interdisciplinary Learning

Unique Qualities of Interdisciplinary Learning

  • Critical thinking 

  • Problem solving

  • Systems thinking

  • Transfer

  • Project-based learning

  • Real-world learning

  • Meaningful to students’ lives

  • Encourages student buy-in

  • Active

  • Collaborative

Problems with Early Approaches

In situations where classes could not be taught by two teachers, interdisciplinary units were developed with the same notion as I saw during my student-teaching: learn about the disciplinary content of subject A in subject A’s class and learn about the disciplinary content of subject B in subject B’s class and have a project or task at the end that touches on both. Several issues can arise with this approach:

  1. The learning is superficial and almost entirely content-based. For example, students learn about the Scramble for Africa in History and then read Things Fall Apart in English. Their history learning helps them understand the context of the novel, and the novel helps put personal stories to the facts and dates in history. But will this learning be transferable to any other circumstance, task, or lesson? Couldn’t each of those outcomes be accomplished in one of the subject areas alone? Was there any critical thinking or problem-solving involved? How does this reflect the qualities of interdisciplinary learning? What is the real-world context?

  2. The learning relies solely on cross-tooling, which is using the tools of one discipline to show learning from another. For example, middle school students learn about nutrition in Health class and then design an app to help other kids their age make healthy eating choices. Coding was used to show learning about nutrition. Was this integration of disciplines meaningful? Were they having to actively transfer their Health learning in order to create an app?

  3. The learning does not result in a new or different skill or understanding because of the integration of the two disciplines. When we take one of the current most in-demand jobs, data scientist, for example, we can see how combining knowledge of data literacy, coding, and engineering results in a new skill set entirely. One cannot be a data scientist without proficiency in each of these areas. In our Things Fall Apart unit above, no new or different learning or skill arises from writing an essay about how the novel shows the impacts of the Scramble for Africa. This entire assignment could have been completed in the English class without even applying the skills of a historian or researcher.


Solutions: Making interdisciplinary learning meaningful

How can we ensure that any interdisciplinary learning we develop is meaningful, effective, and meets the intended purposes of interdisciplinary learning? 


To help my teachers avoid common pitfalls during their planning, I have created a checklist and a unit planning template, which I will share below. 


Although my ultimate goal is for all teachers to have at least one high-quality, interdisciplinary project-based experience each year, I understand that not all teachers start at that point. Therefore, providing the checklist and planning template is a way to scaffold their journey toward that goal.


 The image is a checklist titled "Interdisciplinary Learning Checklist" with the following items to be checked "YES" or "NO":  Require disciplinary grounding (skills, not content) from both subjects? Have a conceptual driving question? Have a meaningful purpose of integration (not just cross-tooling)? Set a real-world context and require problem-solving? Result in a product that students had to develop themselves, not an assigned product? Result in a product that could not have been done in one of the two subjects alone? Result in a new or different understanding or skill set that could not have been achieved in one of the two subjects alone? The checklist includes spaces to mark "YES" or "NO" for each item.

We shared some guidance for the planning and logistics in another blog about the integration of PBL with interdisciplinary learning, but here’s an additional planning template to kick-start the brainstorming process:

Essential Question/Driving Question: 

Guidance: 

  • The best questions start with “how”,“why”, or “when”

  • This question should not be answerable by a brief, one-sentence response

  • Consider what the concept is that links the two disciplines together

  • Here’s an article on the criteria to create an essential question or driving question and how to use them in your teaching from Defined Learning

Example: How can art be a vehicle for social change?

Big Ideas & Concepts:

Guidance:

  • This is the concrete phrasing of the lesson suggested by the question above.

  • What enduring understanding do you want students to walk away with?

Example

  • A song or painting can be a powerful catalyst for changing public opinion on an issue

  • In a digital age, forms of art might sometimes reach larger audiences than politics

  • Forms of art might also reach more diverse audiences

  • The art form must consider history, form, skill, and audience to be successful

Disciplinary Grounding: Indicate the content knowledge from each of the involved subject areas. What will the lessons be taught on?

Guidance:

  • Refer to your skills/benchmarks/curriculum/scope and sequence for each of the subjects and pick out the ones most relevant to the unit

Example:

  • Art:

    • Art History: Analyze elements of a work that are indicative of the historical or cultural context in which it was created

    • Design process: Develop multiple plans for producing a piece of artwork prior to selecting one.

    • Music terms/skills: Melody, rhythm, lyrics, genre

  • History:

    • Interpretation: Interpret different perspectives and their implications.

    • Investigation: Use research methods to collect and record appropriate, varied, and relevant information

    • Content: Social change, its catalysts and impacts; revolution music of the Vietnam War and civil rights music from #BlackLivesMatter

Form and Purpose of Integration: Indicate the interdisciplinary skills and understandings that will be developed by this unit. (These guiding questions are taken from the Interdisciplinary Units Guide for the MYP by the IB program)

Guidance:

  • What new, more compelling, or nuanced understandings will students now have on this topic because of the intersection of both disciplines?

  • In what specific ways does the unit synthesize knowledge from both disciplines to communicate interdisciplinary understanding?

  • What will they learn that will cause them to think differently about the world?

  • What type of action could result from the learning in this unit? What action might students be interested in taking as a result of this unit?

Example:

By combining their understanding of an artist’s intent with that of historical social change, students will learn that the context, form, purpose, and audience are all crucial elements to creating art that has a meaningful impact. Students will understand how, throughout history, music has had a longstanding impact on persuading people to join social movements, not just because of the lyrics but also because of the musician’s craft and form.

Product: What product will students create as a result of this unit? Guidance: Ensure that the product meets the following criteria:

  • Demonstrates real world problem solving

  • Requires collaboration

  • Allows for student choice

Example: In groups, students will write and perform a song that creates awareness for a social message. They will have to be strategic as they match the social message with the genre of the music for an intended impact to a desired audience. The music genre should also reflect the time period of the social message they are advocating for. The song does not need to have lyrics but they should be able to justify the artistic choices they have made.

In summary

Interdisciplinary teaching and learning is an effective (and fun!) way to develop crucial skills that our learners will need to be successful in a world that is changing every minute. However, to ensure that our methods will result in what we have intended, we need to deeply consider the why and how of integrating disciplines. 



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