Are we teaching our children in the most effective way? One effective way to enhance the teaching/learning process is to utilize an interdisciplinary approach to teaching, giving students experiences that are relevant and make sense. That which we do as adults every day in our work and at home calls upon all of the requisite skills we have acquired in school and in life. We don’t approach the tasks we do in a way that separates our math skills from our reading skills. We integrate the various applicable disciplines we learned in order to tackle the task at hand.
Teaching is more effective when students learn about things in a context. Learning becomes relevant and enhanced when the body of knowledge is presented in an integrated manner, one subject reinforcing another. This begs the question, “Why teach subjects in isolation?” When we schedule students into classes that teach science, history, mathematics, English and all the rest, without tying them into one another, we are cheating them out of many opportunities to make better sense of how things work in the real world. Imagine students learning about the Industrial Revolution in England, for example, in well planned multidisciplinary units of study; they would be:
- reading literature of or about the period, Dickens’ Oliver Twist, for example, appeals to middle grade students
- researching various social changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution, i.e. child labor and public health laws
- doing math and organizing data that relate to the Industrial Revolution period, such as: factory output, population changes in cities and on farms, economic data on goods
- learning about the development of scientific thought of the period; learning about the vast increases in new inventions; learning about the connections between science advancement and the effect on humans
- visiting universities, museums and galleries to view and learn about the art, music and other cultural aspects of the period
Imagine the possibilities. Imagine the wealth of ideas for reports, projects and individual independent studies. Depending on the grade level, schools could adapt their curricula and organize faculty to plan themes and units of study that teach in depth through an interdisciplinary approach. This plan could work at any level within the district, with any set of curriculum units or themes. School districts would have to reframe how they staff their schools and organize professional development sessions to prepare teachers to plan and implement this approach.
Many schools are using this approach, and have for years. These enlightened schools recognize the efficacy of integrating their curricula and using this teaching approach. Some call it project based learning; others call it theme based learning, changing themes regularly. Once the concept takes hold, students, faculty, staff and parents will be pleased at the results. Even though high stakes testing seems to have pushed schools and school districts in the direction to teach subjects in isolation, this trend is being turned around. Students can succeed on state tests through learning in an interdisciplinary manner because they are still acquiring the same knowledge without “drill and kill” and without the subjects being artificially separated. There would be better utilization of time for learning and an increased level of collaboration and cooperation.
Some U.S. states have begun to change their testing programs. There are states that are implementing, or are planning to implement an improved test design, giving students items that require the use of the entire gamut of skills they should have acquired at specific grade levels. These test items emphasize process as well as product in evaluating students’ mastery. These changes in testing recognize the “natural” way students should be learning. They also may serve as the necessary impetus for local districts to change the way they teach youngsters and young adults.