Interdisciplinary teaching is a method, or set of methods, used to teach a unit across different curricular disciplines. For example, the seventh grade Language Arts, Science and Social Studies teachers might work together to form an interdisciplinary unit on rivers.
The local river system would be the unifying idea, but the English teacher would link it to Language Arts by studying river vocabulary and teaching students how to do a research report. The science teacher might teach children about the life systems that exist in the river, while the Social Studies teacher might help students research the local history and peoples who used the river for food and transport.
Types of Interdisciplinary Teaching
There are many different types, or levels, of interdisciplinary teaching. On one end, schools might employ an interdisciplinary team approach, in which teachers of different content areas assigned to one group of students who are encouraged to correlate some of their teaching (Vars, 1991). The most common method of implementing integrated, interdisciplinary instruction is the thematic unit, in which a common theme is studied in more than one content area (Barton & Smith, 2000).
The example given above about rivers would be considered multidisciplinary or parallel design, which is defined as lessons or units developed across many disciplines with a common organizing topic (Jackson & Davis, 2000).
One of the foremost scholars of interdisciplinary teaching techniques is James Beane, who advocates for curriculum integration, which is curriculum that is collaboratively designed around important issues. It has four major components: the integration of experiences, social integration, the integration of knowledge, and integration as a curriculum design. It differs from other types of interdisciplinary teaching in that it begins with a central theme that emerges from questions or social concerns students have, without regard to subject delineations (Beane, 1997).
In 1989, the seminal work, Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation, edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs was published by ASCD (Alexandria, Va. In this work, she presented a continuum of options for design spanning focused disciplined work to parallel to multidisciplinary to full integration.
Benefits of Interdisciplinary Teaching
A school district in Michigan created integration plans for thematic units, based on the ideas of Howard Gardner about multiple intelligences, in a yearlong pilot program. The results of the program included “sustained enthusiasm” from the staff, parents, and students, increased attendance rates, and improvement in standardized test scores, “especially from students with the poorest test results” (Bolak, Bialach, & Duhnphy, 2005).
Flowers, Mertens, & Mulhall identify five important outcomes and findings of their experiences with interdisciplinary teaching and planning: common planning time is vital, schools that team have a more positive work climate, parental contact is more frequent, teachers report a higher job satisfaction, and student achievement scores in schools that team are higher than those that do not team (1999).
Additionally, Pumerantz & Galanto find that interdisciplinary teaching allows for students to, “Proceed at a pace commensurate with their interests, skills, and experiences” (1972).
Integrated instruction helps teachers better utilize instructional time and look deeper into subjects through a variety of content-specific lens. Another benefit of integrated instruction is that teachers can better differentiate instruction to individual student needs. Integrated instruction also allows for authentic assessment (Barton & Smith, 2000). A final benefit of interdisciplinary teaching is that students have a chance to work with multiple sources of information, thus ensuring they are receiving a more inclusive perspective than they would from consulting one textbook (Wood, 1997).
Implementation of Interdisciplinary Teaching
Heidi Hayes Jacobs presents a four-phase approach to curriculum integration planning. (1989, ASCD, Alexandria, Va) First, she suggests that a school conduct action research to learn more about how to implement curriculum integration. This should be done six months to a year ahead of when the school is going to attempt curriculum integration. Next, phase two calls for the development of a proposal. Phase three consists of implementing and monitoring the pilot unit; this should take place in the second year of the curriculum integration plan. Phase four takes place in the third year of the plan, and calls for staff adoption of the program based on the findings from phase three (1991).
Criticisms and Shortcomings of Interdisciplinary Teaching Methods
Scholars that advocate for curriculum integration argue that the topics studied should originate with students and their teachers, and not from district-imposed curriculum packages. This raises the important issue of accountability (Stevenson, 1998). As school districts often have decision-making panels that consist of stakeholders such as teachers, parents, and students, curriculum integration may take away their agency to make curricular choices. In addition to issues of local control, truly integrated curricula may or may not prepare students for the high-stakes tests that have become a reality for most high schools around the world, depending on whether they cover the same material. Finally, there is also concern that integrated teaching discounts the value of deep subject-specific knowledge, which is essential for specialization in areas such as medicine, law, and engineering (Gatewood, 1998).
Thematic units can also fall short of teaching in-depth content to students. Often a theme, such as apples, is used to link unrelated subjects, with little deference to students’ prior knowledge or interests. This superficial coverage of a topic can give students the wrong idea about school, perhaps missing the idea of curriculum integration in the first place (Barton & Smith, 2000). Thematic units can contain pointless busywork and activities created solely to create a link to a theme; for example, the alphabetizing of state capitals in a social studies unit, attempting to integrate it with language arts (Brophy & Alleman, 1991).
Barton, K.C. & Smith, L.A. (September 2000). Themes or motifs? Aiming for coherence through interdisciplinary outlines. The Reading Teacher, 54(1), 54 – 63.
Beane, J. (1997). Curriculum Integration. Teachers College Press: New York.
Bolak, K., Bialach, D., & Dunphy, M. (May 2005). Standards-based, thematic units integrate the arts and energize students and teachers. Middle School Journal, 31(2), 57 - 60.
Brophy, J. & Alleman, J. (October 1991). A caveat: Curriculum integration isn’t always a good idea. Educational Leadership, 49(2), 66.
Flowers, N., Mertens, S.B., & Mulhall, P.F. (November 1999). The impact of teaming: Five research-based outcomes. Middle School Journal, 36(5), 9 - 19.
Gatewood, T. (March 1998). How valid is integrated curriculum in today’s middle school? Middle School Journal, 29(4), 38 - 41.
Jackson, A.W. & Davis, G.A. (2000). Turning Points 2000: Educating adolescents in the 21st century. New York: Teachers College Press.
Jacobs, H.H. (1989). Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation. ASCD, Alexandria, Va.
Jacobs, H.H. (October 1991). Planning for curriculum integration. Educational Leadership, 49(2), 27 – 28.
Pumerantz, P. & Galano, R.W. (1972). Establishing interdisciplinary programs in the middle school. West Nyack, N.Y.: Parker Publishing Company, Inc.
Stevenson, C. (March 1998). Finding our priorities for middle level curriculum. Middle School Journal, 29(4), 55 - 57.
Vars, G.F. (October 1991). Integrated curriculum in historical perspective. Educational Leadership, 49(2), 14 – 15.
Wood, K. (1997). Interdisciplinary instruction: A practical guide for elementary and middle school teachers. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill.