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Interdisciplinary Teaching: The Why, What, and How

There’s no such thing as a career that relies upon a single discipline. For example, a medical researcher’s job may fall under the umbrella of science, but they also read and write reports, complete mathematical equations, analyze data, and leverage historical findings to inform future objectives.

In all aspects of our daily life, we often draw from a vast array of disciplines. For example, even something as routine as driving a car requires a working knowledge of geography, reading road signs, math to estimate distances, and physics concepts like inertia and friction.

Acknowledging the essential integration of knowledge across diverse domains in all facets of life, educators leverage interdisciplinary teaching strategies to prepare students effectively for real-life scenarios. Here’s what that means, why it’s beneficial, and some practical ideas to support teaching this method in your school.

What is Interdisciplinary Teaching?

Interdisciplinary teaching is a method that increases student learning of a concept or topic by integrating multiple disciplines or subjects. Also called multidisciplinary teaching, this approach expands students’ understanding by helping them tackle problems from various perspectives. Contrasting traditional teaching methods that usually teach subjects independently and predominantly follow a lecture style, interdisciplinary teaching focuses on a holistic view of learning and challenges students to think critically and evaluate complex information to form their own conclusions.

According to Allen Repko, former Director of Interdisciplinary Studies for the School of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington, interdisciplinary learning helps students develop knowledge on three levels:

  • Declarative knowledge

This type of knowledge includes static facts about how and why something works the way it does, and can usually be verbalized. For example, “A bicycle has two wheels."

  • Procedural knowledge

This type of knowledge, also referred to as imperative or practical knowledge, includes knowledge about a process or performance of a task. For example, knowing how to ride a bike.

  • Structural knowledge

This type of knowledge combines declarative and procedural knowledge and an understanding of how facts or topics are interrelated. For example, understanding how traveling by bicycle compares to traveling by car and using this knowledge to form conclusions about which method of transportation is better for the environment.

Benefits of Interdisciplinary Teaching

By integrating concepts, interdisciplinary teaching helps students develop various skills and proficiencies that will enable continued success throughout their education, future career, and adult life. When students can identify the multiple subjects relevant to a problem and synthesize insights across disciplines, they’ll be able to dive deeper into ideas and solve problems independently. It not only increases understanding of the topic at hand but also encourages independent thinking and cognitive abilities in general.

Educational researchers found interdisciplinary teaching yields four key benefits:  

Helps students learn to recognize bias

Many students approach new topics with preconceived notions, leaving them less open to new information and ideas. But interdisciplinary learning challenges students to examine the framework they used to arrive at their conclusions. Instead of accepting knowledge at face value, students must recognize the source of their preexisting assumptions and explore other perspectives.

Because insights come from various disciplines and are then integrated, this method helps students discover how to take ideas from multiple sources, evaluate them, and use all these facts and findings to inform their conclusions.

As a result, students become more open to understanding, and teachers can spend more time examining concepts in ways that promote deeper learning.

Supports critical thinking

By supporting the development of cognitive abilities, interdisciplinary teaching helps students understand multiple viewpoints and begin to appreciate different approaches to solving problems. As a result, students can begin discussing complex issues more easily and become better positioned to solve problems as a team and independently.

Additionally, being presented with multiple perspectives and approaches simultaneously broadens students’ problem-solving toolkits.

Encourages students to embrace ambiguity

When students are only presented with one disciplinary perspective, it drives them  to often  see ambiguity as a problem or make broad assumptions. On the other hand, interdisciplinary learning helps students recognize that ambiguity is part of exploring multiple perspectives and uncertainty is part of the knowledge-building process.

As a result, students start to understand that answers to questions can be nuanced, and studying a problem from multiple angles better prepares them for solving it.

Empowers students to acknowledge ethical considerations

While some disciplines focus more on objective facts, others allow for subjective interpretations. Interdisciplinary learning allows students to see not only hard facts but also ethical considerations, like right versus wrong.

As a result, students begin to see moral philosophy as a component of evaluating an issue and essential for effective problem-solving.

How to Implement Interdisciplinary Teaching 

Interdisciplinary teaching is essential for helping students develop the skills they need to navigate our rapidly changing world. However, it can also be labor-intensive if not implemented strategically which can  create even more work for already-overburdened educators. 

So if you’re a teacher who may have had concerns with deploying this method, or a a campus or district administrator who wants to support teachers in doing so, we’ve got a few tips to help streamline and support implementation and mastery t of this  method:

1. Create a step-by-step process

Equip teachers with a reliable process. First, walk them through pre-instructional planning, where action plans and discussion guides can be developed to enhance the classroom experience. Then share how they might explain interdisciplinary learning to students and how they themselves can learn alongside their students. Help teachers design a rubric for evaluating students and leverage assessments to encourage students’ self-evaluation.

It’s also worth mentioning that many schools and classrooms are already practicing interdisciplinary learning through the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) crosscutting concepts (CCCs). Teachers use CCCs to help students integrate ideas across science, but these same CCCs are present when students examine fiction texts in ELA, cover historical information in social studies, or leverage equation processes in math.

2. Encourage collaboration

Collaboration is essential to interdisciplinary learning — both between teachers and between teachers and their students. But it’s crucial that schools support organic collaboration by connecting teachers through shared physical or digital space.

“The fact that [teachers and students here] are scheduling on a weekly basis allows us to iterate really, really rapidly. Then the nature of the space causes serendipitous interactions all the time,” said Lead Instructor Andrew Goodin at Purdue Polytechnic High School, a school that has shifted to interdisciplinary learning. There, instructors  “Because we are sharing a classroom space, we’re able to just hop on over, ask a quick question, and then use that real-time to adjust course.”

3. Leverage the right technology

Instructional planning and educator professional development are vital to success through interdisciplinary learning. But teachers don’t always have the time and resources to develop interdisciplinary lesson plans that foster the type of deep learning that this type of teaching aims to achieve. Nor do they always have the opportunity to grow their skills so they can be more effective when teaching through this method.

One of the best ways to overcome these challenges is by investing in the right tech. Propello allows teachers to easily access standards-aligned curricula, including labs and assignments, so they can spend their planning time customizing their lessons and tailoring the material to their students’ unique needs. Additionally, educators can access knowledge and training on their own time and practice their new skills as they teach.

Interdisciplinary learning can be a significant shift for many schools and may require a great deal of preparation and strategizing for thoughtful implementation. However, the payoff is significant. Students will engage more deeply with content, helping them master material more thoroughly. And by following the tips and guidance above, you can streamline deployment and help your school excel with interdisciplinary learning fast.

Interested in learning what Propello can do for your school? Book a tour with a crew member today.