Fostering Interdisciplinary Skill Sets

Interdisciplinary teaching involves exploring content or solving a problem by integrating more than one academic subject. It is a holistic approach to education and requires the close collaboration of multiple teachers to create an more integrated, enhanced learning experience for students across multiple classes.

The Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College (SERC) makes some excellent arguments for the implementation of interdisciplinary units in schools. By developing common goals, teachers can help students “advance critical thinking and cognitive development,” and have learning experiences that are simultaneously wider and more in-depth by prompting them to explore content using multiple intelligences.

Interdisciplinary lessons often add real-world relevance and energy to classroom lessons, but they are not as simple as choosing a topic and discussing multiple aspects of it during your lesson. Here are five ways to build interdisciplinary skills into your instruction and cultivate those skills in your students:

1. Plan for collaboration.
Creating successful interdisciplinary lessons is not as simple as assigning “chunks” of content to teachers of various subjects, then having them teach those lessons independent of one another. SERCstresses that an interdisciplinary approach takes extensive planning through which educators together examine the issues that they hope to cover through lessons, gaining the knowledge needed to teach with proficiency and a wider understanding of how each subject contributes to create the interdisciplinary lesson. Remember: The idea is that, if content is being taught throughout multiple classes, it should be interwoven with teachers referencing each others’ lessons.

2. Avoid just brushing the surface.
The University of North Carolina mentions two common, but less effective, ways of teaching interdisciplinary units: “Potpourri problems” lack a strong, central focus and deliver just a “sampling” from each discipline; and “polarity problems” occur when teachers feel threatened by collaboration and differing viewpoints, and instead seek to reinforce their own lessons rather than integrating them with those of other teachers. Both problems can be avoided through common planning time, a commitment to and understanding of the value of interdisciplinary instruction, and flexibility to modify pre-planned instruction according to the needs of students.

3. Plan assessments.
San Francisco State University encourages teachers to create rubrics that include interdisciplinary elements, which students use to evaluate their own learning and devise plans to tackle trouble areas. This process of self-evaluation still requires your involvement to ensure that students remain focused on improvement of interdisciplinary skills and continue to view the learning process holistically. Carefully planned peer review can also assist students in accessing and understanding the multiple perspectives intrinsic to interdisciplinary learning.

4. Teach by example.
SERC also asserts that teachers aren’t the only ones who need to change their ways of thinking — after all, having an interdisciplinary focus in your lessons is just a means of cultivating interdisciplinary skills in your students. To best teach students how to think in interdisciplinary ways, the teacher must model how to explore a problem in an interdisciplinary way, using several disciplines to examine each piece of content presented to the class. For example: You can bring related music to when examining a poem or you can include an investigation of native plants and animals when learning about the geography of a particular region. You can also encourage interdisciplinary skills with a bottom-up approach by having students work in small groups to tackle a problem from multiple aspects.

5. Offer regular feedback.
Evaluate student work and progress regularly, giving verbal and written feedback. SERC also recommends conferencing with individual students, encouraging them to reflect on their own performance and offering students who are struggling with unfamiliar material extra attention. Similarly, if the material is unfamiliar to you, use your colleagues for support and reference. Remember that interdisciplinary learning is a team effort!