Interdisciplinary studies involve combining disciplines or subjects together in new ways in order to answer a question or solve a problem that cannot be satisfactorily addressed using the approaches or methods of only one discipline or subject. It’s about more than mixing and matching topics; it’s about problem solving.
The world today demands a well-rounded individual who can pose questions and solve problems across the disciplines. To be a world expert on the growth of cities, for example, it would be best to know something about history, geography, engineering, politics and health. This illustrates an important reality – to study some things in proper depth, you need to combine existing subjects in interdisciplinary ways. The concept is nothing new – over the course of history, disciplines change frequently. Some come and go, depending on the issues of the day, and others are unrecognizable from 100, or even 30 years ago ("More about interdisciplinarity", n.d.). Some current examples of interdisciplinary studies at the post-secondary level are in assistive technologies, creativity in educational practice, education for the environment, and promoting resiliency in children with ADHD ("MEd Interdisciplinary", n.d.).
Why teach with an interdisciplinary approach?
Interdisciplinary teaching increases student learning: Engaging students and helping them to develop knowledge, insights, problem-solving skills, self-confidence, self-efficacy, and a passion for learning are common goals that educators bring to the classroom, and interdisciplinary instruction and exploration promotes realization of these objectives. Repko (2008) asserts that interdisciplinary instruction fosters advances in cognitive ability and other educational researchers (Field, Lee & Field, 1994; Kavaloski, 1979; Newell, 1990) have identified a number of distinct educational benefits of interdisciplinary learning including gains in the ability to:
- Recognize bias
- Think critically
- Tolerate ambiguity
- Acknowledge and appreciate ethical concerns ("Why Teach with an Interdisciplinary Approach?", 2013).
Interdisciplinary teaching promotes significant learning
Facilitating meaningful and lasting learning experiences is what significant learning is all about. When teachers impart students with a range of skills and insights about the learning process – and when the work is engaging and meaningful to students, greater learning occurs. Fink identifies six elements that lead to significant learning. Note that each is a common feature of interdisciplinary forms of instruction:
- Foundational Knowledge – Acquiring information and understanding ideas.
- Application – Acquiring an understanding of how and when to use different skills.
- Integration – The capacity to connect ideas.
- Human Dimension – Recognition of the social and personal implications of issues.
- Caring – Acknowledgement of the role of feelings, interests and values.
- Learning how to learn – Obtaining insights into the process of learning.
Interdisciplinary instruction fosters the acquisition of foundational knowledge, promotes integration of ideas from multiple disciplines and provides insight on how to apply knowledge all of which advance a students understanding of how to learn. Moreover, students are encouraged to account for the contribution of disciplines that highlight the roles of caring and social interaction when analyzing problems ("Why Teach with an Interdisciplinary Approach?", 2013).
When teachers design interdisciplinary studies it is important to be selective about what is in and what is out. Here teachers need to attend to what approaches and methods are required in order to solve the problem or carry out the investigation. Avoid the temptation to focus the interdisciplinary study around a theme. Sometimes teachers find themselves laminating math facts on the rings of Saturn. This would be an investigation gone wrong. It may be cute and appealing to the eye, but it has nothing to do with the mathematics that makes space exploration possible or engaging.
Authentic work across subjects allows the big questions to weave in and out in a sensible and compelling way. There will be times that the work in defining understanding of the topic seems to slip into the background as you work on tasks and activities that allow students to develop their understanding of fundamental concepts. Questions and issues relevant to the topic move to the foreground when it’s appropriate. Connections are built and explored, not forced.