Everything I read these days points to the need for an interdisciplinary approach to learning. It’s touted to boost engagement and bring coherence to the otherwise jolty school experience most kids endure each day. My favorite rationale for interdisciplinary work is that it’s necessary for solving real-world problems. Although we often isolate discipline-specific approaches, skills, and knowledge in our teaching, in the real world math, English, foreign language, the arts, history and science are anything but isolated.
Migrant crisis in Europe? Drought in California? Social security funding? Which of these is a “math” problem? Or a “history” exercise? Which discipline should you call on when starting a small business? Or choosing which candidate to support in an election? In buying a new car? Outside of school kids will need to approach complex problems by drawing on the tools of all disciplines flexibly.
So, why don’t we do more interdisciplinary work in school to prepare kids for the real world? Probably because it is absurdly difficult to plan for and arrange. We are charged with teaching long lists of content and skills specific to our disciplines of expertise, leaving little time for interdisciplinary connections. Standards (or the textbook or whatever guides the scope and sequence of your teaching) are rarely aligned so that what kids are learning in art and science and English can be easily combined into a larger project. It’s too much work to make it fit and no one has that kind of time. Right?
This is how we felt when we first started designing curriculum. How do we help teachers and kids make interdisciplinary connections when they’re set to study the following all at once (seriously, this is what 9th graders were supposed to study):
- Art – line, shape, color in one-dimensional art
- English – poetry and short stories
- Science – ecosystems
- History – Islam in the Middle Ages
- Math – solving one-step equations
Topically speaking, this left us with very few options. In what project could kids study ecosystems and ancient Islam and solve one-variable equations? We would really, really be stretching to combine all of these topics into one task, which would defeat the purpose of the interdisciplinary approach (e.g. helping kids use the disciplines to solve real-world problems).
But once we decided to connect these units through concepts rather than topics, the lightbulbs went off. Consider the universal concepts of “change,” “systems,” and “interdependence” for just a moment. What if we united all of the topics of the units described above through a conceptual framework, like this:
How does changing one part of a system impact the other parts?
- Art – How does a change in color/line/shape impact our perception of a work of one-dimensional art? Students create 3 different versions of the same image by altering color, line, and shape accordingly. Then they discuss how a change in one element impacts the overall piece.
- English – Can one word change the meaning of a poem? Students consider the specific connotation of words in short poems and discuss the implications of alternate word choice. Then they write their own poems and give a presentation to the class to explain their own word choice.
- Science – What happens when one part of an ecosystem is disturbed? Students study the impacts of pollution on a local watershed and map out the ripple effects on all living things that belong to the system.
- History – How do economic and religious expansion reinforce each other? Students investigate how the expansion of Islam was intertwined with the expansion of trade between Islamic societies and their neighbors in the middle ages. They look for ways that economic expansion paved the way for religious conversion, and how religious expansion paved the way for trade relationships to flourish.
- Math – How can we change an equation to make it easier to solve? Students learn to manipulate equations to isolate variables, learning to distinguish between changes that maintain the original balance of the equation (e.g. subtract 7 from both sides, or multiply both sides by 2) and changes that disrupt the equation (altering one side but not the other).
By the end of this unit, students would have investigated the nature of change in a system in many different ways. They would come to understand interdependence. Insights from one discipline could easily be tested out in another. And, ultimately, a project requiring students to apply these principles of change to a new scenario would reveal their ability to use the concepts in flexible ways.
Think about how this type of learning would lend itself to some possible projects and performance tasks. Here’s a simple example:
- Our school is a system of interdependent parts. Think of a change you would like to make in our school community. Then analyze the ways in which your desired change might impact the entire system of the school. Create a display, with careful attention to visual elements and word choice, that communicates this analysis to students, faculty, and parents. Afterward, write a reflective piece that explains how your understanding of change, systems, and interdependence influenced the course of your project.
Would this project test the factual or topical content covered in each course? Of course not. Students would be hard-pressed to show their deep understanding of the spread of Islam or the poetry of Langston Hughes in this project. Obviously, other assessments would need to be used to measure progress toward discipline-specific goals. But this project would give students a chance to transfer their learning from many disciplines to a relevant, real-world problem.
The moral of the story? Universal concepts are interdisciplinary by nature (hence their universality!). When you’re hard pressed to find interdisciplinary connections, chances are you just need to shift your focus to the concepts at play.