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What are the benefits of interdisciplinary teaching?

Education is and has always been the field that autoregulates in order to provide students the tools to live, adapt, contribute, develop and create better outcomes for themselves and generations to come.

Teachers have continuously tried to adapt their approaches to the requirements of specific communities with the purpose of reaching students where they are in terms of knowledge and ensuring an uphill learning curve. In their quest, they have employed different strategies such as traditional, multidisciplinary, or cross-curriculum teaching with more or less successful results.

The interdisciplinary teaching approach has been around to some extent since the 1930s. In the article Interdisciplinary Approach - advantages, disadvantages, and future benefits of interdisciplinary studies, Casey Jones attributes the first attempts of curriculum integration “through joint planning and block scheduling” to advocates who considered it crucial for teaching advancements.

However, interdisciplinarity is still controversial. Although the benefits for students weigh more than the challenges, it takes rigorous planning and consistency to see the expected results. Before moving forward, let’s understand the concept and see how it works.

What is interdisciplinary teaching?

Starting as a desire to see how disciplines interconnect, interdisciplinarity appeared as a liberal approach to education in a time when disciplinary departments were the norm and The Association of Integrative Studies (renamed in 2013 The Association of Interdisciplinary Studies) was in its infancy.

A widely-quoted definition of interdisciplinary studies appears on the Association website and was given by J. Klein and W. Newell in 1998: 

A process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline or profession… [It] draws on disciplinary perspectives and integrates their insights through the construction of a more comprehensive perspective.”

The interdisciplinary approach was received with skepticism at first as it seemed it didn’t differentiate much from the disciplinary teaching. Nevertheless, it has been trying ever since to find its legitimacy through achievable and accessible interdisciplinary instruction, which was, for instance, the rationale behind The University of British Columbia (UBC) Mix concept designed in 2014.

Based on the UBC’s strategic plan, the Mix was one of many interdisciplinary programs that promoted the importance of learning across disciplines that allow students to “acquire the knowledge, the inquiry, and communication skills, professional abilities, and understanding of other cultures that enhance their personal development.” 

The design was complementary to existing courses, reaching more than 2,400 students in activities such as shared assignments, common experiences, networking and community engagement. The Mix was appreciated by students because it offered new perspectives and opportunities to exchange knowledge and collaborate in real-life scenarios.

The interdisciplinary approach has the support of multiple literacies, multiple intelligences, neuroscience and constructivist theories in that students learn and share information through different means and various learning experiences which encourage problem-solving through reflection on various perspectives across disciplines.

Read more: STEM vs. STEAM: The importance of the Arts

The benefits of interdisciplinary teaching

Through short or long-term interdisciplinary activities, students benefit from an outstanding list of skills and personal development opportunities that prepare them for future success. 

  1. Boosting cognitive abilities

    Researchers have found that interdisciplinary instruction boosts students’ cognitive abilities to recognize bias, think critically, tolerate ambiguity, acknowledge and appreciate ethical concerns.

    Students come from various social backgrounds and have their own pre-existing ideas, which can impact their learning experience. Through interdisciplinary teaching, students challenge the existing notions by gathering information from different perspectives and analyzing it into a broader conceptual framework needed to solve complex problems. 

  2. Increasing tolerance for ambiguity

    Interdisciplinarity increases students’ tolerance for ambiguous or conflicting ideas as they’ll be able to see topics through multiple lenses in favor of a more objective approach.

    An interdisciplinary analysis is student-driven, therefore, students collect information, analyze and synthesize perspectives to reach a more objective outlook and form their own opinions. Students become more actively involved in the learning process and use their voices to solve real-life problems. 

  3. Enhancing communication skills

    Interdisciplinary activities are mostly collaborative which also enhances communication skills. Thus, students become more independent and learn how to learn, developing skills to last for a lifetime.

    The interdisciplinary projects do not provide strict guidelines to follow. This means that students use their organizational skills and creativity in approaching a topic to reach a deep understanding of it.

    The interdisciplinary approach limits the shortcomings of students’ preconceived notions about different subjects by facilitating access to different perspectives, fostering an innovative approach to problem-solving.

    Read more: 5 Evidence-based interventions that have an impact on learning

What are some examples of interdisciplinary teaching?

Many schools and universities have implemented the approach successfully, from students trying to come up with a health plan for their teacher to getting actively involved in their communities to analyze the impact and provide solutions to aspects such as mental health or social justice-related issues.

In my ESL classes, students experience learning through projects that combine their passions and real-life problems with the curriculum. They are high school students enrolled in study programs that focus on economics and social sciences. I use a project-based approach to help them learn English while also practicing other important skills related to their interests.

The Entrepreneurship Project 

The Entrepreneurship Project spans an entire semester. High school students who major in economic studies create their own fictional companies promoting products and services they consider essential in today’s society.

Each student is assigned a role in the company by the manager who ensures the tasks are completed on time. Students use the knowledge they have from all the economics-related disciplines while developing English language skills and preparing for their future careers. For example, they advertise job vacancies by providing complex job descriptions, organizing job interviews, writing application letters, and more.

Read more: How to teach students entrepreneurship over an online platform

Broadcasting company project

In another project, students who major in social studies create fictional broadcasting companies that provide information in three major areas: news, education, and entertainment. Students are coordinated by a manager who assigns roles such as editor, video director, social media manager, writer, actor, news anchor, etc. Students develop their English skills while collaborating to find solutions for each task, analyzing different perspectives, and synthesizing them in written, audio, and video formats.

Senior students have to write and give speeches on topics of interest for their age group, providing solutions to problems they consider important going through a month-long research period in which they state the problem, present the current situation (by analyzing their peers’ perspectives and authority resources) and provide actionable solutions targeted towards a 17-19 aged target audience.

All of my students' activities are tracked through a blog journal that they update frequently.

Read more: 3 Opportunities for education during the pandemic

Interdisciplinary teaching challenges

Interdisciplinary teaching does not only refer to activities and projects analyzed from different perspectives related to a few disciplines. Topics can be taught by multiple teachers, a technique called “team-teaching”. However, this approach raises some concerns in terms of assigning clear objectives for each teacher and sharing responsibilities.

Implementing the interdisciplinary approach has to surpass other obstacles such as doubt and stress. Teachers who don’t understand how the approach works, how to organize and assess the activities, may experience stress caused by the fear of failure and their limitations in terms of time and group management. Moreover, pre-planning is a crucial aspect of interdisciplinary teaching which will make or break the outcomes of a project. For this reason, teachers need curriculum restructuring which aligns with their knowledge and thorough planning to anticipate any obstacles in the students' learning experience.

Anytime a teacher introduces a new approach in the classroom, it can cause a wave of discontent because of student resistance to change. It’s difficult to change habits and patterns in learning and it can only succeed if students approach it with an open mindset.

Final thoughts

The desire to perfect each discipline has pushed the invisible antennae of every subject away from connecting to other subjects. Interdisciplinary teaching reestablishes the connections between them and allows students to learn multiple facets of the same topic.

Students benefit from their active involvement in interdisciplinary tasks by developing critical thinking, creativity, communication, and problem-solving skills while acquiring deeper knowledge on any given topic. Through thorough interdisciplinary analysis, they overcome their biased perspectives and develop tolerance to different or conflicting ideas while they form new, well-researched and comprehensive ideas.