Building Interdisciplinary Learning into Traditional Classrooms
July 3, 2020
interdisciplinary learning into traditional classrooms

A traditional classroom setting is just that…traditional. Teachers must teach specific subjects for a required amount of time, often using prescribed curriculum materials that may be a decade old. There’s little consideration for the individual learner–their interests, abilities, attention span or learning styles.

Many teachers try to compensate for this lack of diversity in the curriculum by bringing in some of their own resources; however, when every fifth grade teacher must teach language arts from 10:00 to 10:50 a.m. and math from 1:35 to 3:00 p.m., there’s little room for flexibility. At the middle school and high school levels, many students are required to attend classes on a 50-minute rotation, with a different teacher for each subject area.

Find another startling analogy of what traditional education looks like in Chapter 1 of Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation. This snapshot provides a multi-faceted argument for interdisciplinary learning.

Traditional teaching structure, putting children and concepts in silos, goes against what we adults know well is not reality. We use our computation skills all day long, from doubling recipes while cooking to calculating time zones during a meeting. Our language arts skills are at work every day, through writing and responding to emails (and determining which are the most important ones), communicating with team members and even reasoning with their partner. We don’t use our skills in silos, so why do we teach in this disassociated manner?

Interdisciplinary is what the real world looks like and traditional educational systems are not preparing our children and young adults for using multiple skill sets and content areas at once.

Listen in to my podcast episode about making learning stick with interdisciplinary learning:

Listen to “9. Making Learning Stick with Interdisciplinary Learning” on Spreaker.

We need to do better by our children. That starts with reimagining education as we know it, but that becomes a challenge during our climate of slow change, full of red tape and roadblocks.

In an ideal world, teachers could collaborate and band various class periods together to create interdisciplinary learning. But that doesn’t mean interdisciplinary learning cannot happen if a teacher is limited by a traditional schedule.

How to Bring Interdisciplinary Learning into Traditional Classrooms

Individual schools and classrooms can make the switch, with careful planning and a dedication to growth. Here are questions teachers can ask themselves to create learning experiences that connect various subjects and relevant real-world learning:

  • What outcomes am I seeking? Are there specific skills and understandings I want students to take away? Determining this first applies reverse engineering (or Understanding by Design/UbD).
  • Which competencies and textbook concepts absolutely must be addressed? Becoming intentional about content and not merely covering a wide variety of lessons in a superficial manner will provide more space to create interdisciplinary and personal connections for the learners.
  • Is there a theme with an essential question that can pull together the content for this semester?
  • Looking at my theme through the lenses of various subject matters, what connections might I make? For example, is there a way I can include writing, reading, research, applied math, healthy physical choices, current events, historic people/events in this unit?
  • Looking at this theme, are there ways I can embed student choice and student voice (agency) to help students own their own personal connections to the learning?
  • Looking at this theme, what real-world connections can I bring in? Are there local resources? Current world events? Guest speakers? How can I create relevance so that the learning is more profound for the students?

Taking any or all of these questions and letting them guide your planning will allow you to create interdisciplinary and meaningful learning in your classroom…learning that students will find meaningful and have much greater staying power than merely covering topics in a textbook. You may even spark some passions in your students that will fuel their future learning or career choices. Isn’t that a wonderful legacy to leave as a teacher?

If you’re a teacher or leader in a traditional setting looking for more resources to grow your interdisciplinary instruction repertoire, download our guide below!

Download 5 hacks to incorporating interdisciplinary learning into your everyday classroom.

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