A Guide for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning

A Guide for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning

At XQ, we envision a world where students develop knowledge, insights, problem-solving skills, self-confidence, self-efficacy, and a passion for learning. And one of the ways to support students in developing these real-world skills is through interdisciplinary learning. 

What Is Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning?

The Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College defines interdisciplinary teaching as an approach that integrates different aspects of more than one academic discipline to examine a theme, issue, question, or topic.  Interdisciplinary learning empowers students to explore different perspectives and views. 

And research shows that interdisciplinary approaches to teaching help students learn how to solve problems and answer questions by:

  • Recognizing biases
  • Thinking critically
  • Embracing ambiguity
  • Analyzing ethical concerns

This approach gives students a “more complete and coherent” understanding of the material they’re studying. 

You may be asking yourself, but why is this approach to teaching more effective?

Because real-world problems are complex and their solutions often need to pull from different modes of thought to find solutions for large-scale problems every day. 

For instance, when your chair is wobbly, you’ll likely use science, math, engineering, and motor skills to figure out how to stabilize it. Let’s say you notice a screw is missing, but you don’t have a screwdriver. You’ll probably use all of the skills mentioned and your creativity—to find an alternative tool (like a butter knife) you can use to tighten the screw.

And here’s an example from the XQ network: Jose, an English Language Learner at Latitude High School, used a combination of programming, electric, and creativity skills to laser cut and inscribed an audio speaker. Learn more about his project and school here.

Latitude High School student working on an interdisciplinary project by creating a custom-made speaker
LATITUDE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT WORKING ON AN INTERDISCIPLINARY PROJECT BY CREATING A CUSTOM-MADE SPEAKER. PHOTO COURTESY: OAKLAND CHARTERS ON MEDIUM

Interdisciplinary studies experts Allen Repko and James Welch developed a 9-step approach to interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Let’s take a look at it to understand how it works:

9 Step approach to interdisciplinary learning

Interdisciplinary instruction helps students understand that there’s more than one way to solve a problem, but it also broadens the range of solutions they identify. 

Recognizing Biases with Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching

Like all of us, students bring pre-existing ideas, biases, and prejudices into the classroom. And those explicit views and implicit biases can affect what students learn, how they learn, and how they bring what they learn together. Interdisciplinary teaching and learning help students recognize and address bias in a variety of ways. 

The interdisciplinary approach to teaching allows students to study one subject from multiple perspectives. It will enable students to think outside the box and challenge their preconceived notions by exploring ideas and concepts in more than one way. 

Researchers say that when students set aside their biases, they’re able to:

  • Learn more readily 
  • Get a deeper understanding of the material 
  • Be open-minded to new ideas, concepts, thinking, and ways of doing things

Thinking Critically with Interdisciplinary Learning

We already know that there’s more than one way to solve a problem. That’s why interdisciplinary learning is so important in helping students develop critical thinking skills to see the multitude of solutions to complex problems.

When students dive deeply into a subject from different perspectives and use multiple disciplines to study it, they’ll appreciate the diversity of approaches to solve a problem. It also gives students a broader understanding of the material because it requires them to study conflicting insights from alternative disciplines. And when students examine different perspectives regarding the same or similar problems, they also get a grasp of the reasoning behind each perspective.

Here’s more expert insight into how interdisciplinary learning helps students develop critical thinking skills:

How Interdisciplinary Learning Builds Critical Thinking Skills
Declarative knowledgeStudents learn how and why things work the way they do
Procedural knowledgeStudents identify and understand the steps necessary to arrive at a solution
Structural knowledgeStudents can combine both declarative and procedural knowledge

Interdisciplinary teaching creates a learning environment where students and teachers can have complex discussions, strengthening students’ critical thinking skills. In these environments, students develop the capacity to have those conversations outside of the classroom and in their personal lives.

Embracing Ambiguity with Interdisciplinary Learning

Ambiguity often makes it hard to find a clear path. It can be confusing and stressful as it clouds right from wrong and makes clear solutions elusive. However, interdisciplinary teaching and learning help students see ambiguity as an invitation to dive deeper into a subject.

When students use insights from a range of disciplines, it helps create a big-picture understanding of the problems they’re examining and ways to solve them. This strengthens our students’ research and analysis skills and also helps students develop the “muscles” to approach problems from a wide frame of reference. 

Interdisciplinary learning helps students work through and process ambiguity by helping them understand:

  1. Why conflicts take place
  2. What causes and consequences behind an issue are
  3. How to identify ideal ways to address the issue, problem, or question

When students develop a capacity for this line of inquiry, they’re able to understand the complexity of problems and challenges they’ll face when trying to solve them.

Analyzing Ethical Concerns With Interdisciplinary Learning

Interdisciplinary learning is also a great way to teach ethics. You can do this by introducing ethics to students and asking them to consider moral principles when examining an issue or problem.

For example, students studying wage payment laws may compare legislation from state to state. Interdisciplinary learning allows the students to dive deeply into an analysis. These students can analyze wage payment laws using content knowledge from different disciplines, like history, sociology, political science, and economics. After introducing the concept of ethics, you can create a project that asks students to consider the ethical concerns of wage gaps, what those wage gaps say about society, and how these gaps affect some employees but not others.

Another example comes from Da Vinci RISE High, an XQ school in Los Angeles. When the coronavirus pandemic caused shelter-in-place orders, Da Vinci teachers wanted to use the experience as an opportunity for lifelong learning. So, they launched a 3-month interdisciplinary project where students explored how the laws we vote on can affect communities differently. Students used the identity wheel pictured below to jumpstart the process.

identity circle
AN IDENTITY WHEEL ALLOWS STUDENTS AT DA VINCI RISE TO THINK ABOUT HOW IDENTITY IMPACTS VOTING IN A DEEPLY INTERSECTIONAL WAY.

Students were even able to get a lesson on why voting matters from the star of Netflix show, “Dear White People, Logan Browning:

Students culminated the 3-month project by presenting their final products and narrative through an online exhibition. And they learned a valuable lesson—that understanding different identities can play a role in solving complex issues like systemic inequities.  

Interdisciplinary instruction helps to support ethical analysis. It asks students to tap into their fundamental literacies and question statements and facts. And those questions help students see that every issue or problem comes with its own ethical considerations. Students use what they learn, along with personal experiences, not only to find a solution but also to understand how it affects others. This helps students evaluate the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. 

Here’s another example of interdi from : When shelter-in-place orders took place, teachers at Da Vinci launched a 3-month interdisciplinary project that helped students explore how voting can affect communities differently.  

How Interdisciplinary Teaching Promotes Meaningful, Engaged Learning

Research shows that students naturally develop real-world skills when they learn how to recognize biases, think critically, embrace ambiguity, and analyze ethical concerns. Through interdisciplinary teaching, students:

  • Strengthen their comprehension skills and experience increased retention
  • Understand how to apply what they’re learning to real-world scenarios better
  • See how solutions to problems often require content knowledge and skills that are interconnected 
  • Develop different or multiple perspectives, points of views, and values
  • Enhance their decision-making skills and the ability to synthesize knowledge 
  • Improve their ability to identify, assess, and communicate important information 
  • Foster collaboration skills and are more likely to develop a positive attitude toward learning
  • Become a contributing member of society

Students also see how their learning translates to cognitive gains. Research tells us that as students build foundational knowledge and integrate ideas from multiple disciplines, they’re more equipped to apply what they’ve learned to problems, ideas, and issues they face—in the classroom and in the real world. 

And when students are regularly exposed to classroom conversations, projects, and assignments that cover real-world problems, they’re more likely to have meaningful, engaged learning experiences.

Educators can easily empower students to learn new skills and study issues they care about through interdisciplinary instruction, too. When students feel more connected to their work, they become more meaningfully engaged in their learning and develop a love for lifelong learning while they’re at it. 

“Learning is most effective and meaningful when young people are able to relate what they’ve learned to their real lives.”
—XQ Knowledge Modules: Teaching & Learning

Pro tip: Uncover more ways to teach for real-world learning in XQ Knowledge Module: Teaching & Learning.

How to Teach Using an Interdisciplinary Learning Model

Now that you know more about how to define interdisciplinary learning and why it’s important let’s talk about how to apply it in the classroom.

The National Science Foundation’s Pedagogy in Action, “How to Teach with an Interdisciplinary Approach,” outlines a 6-step framework for effectively implementing interdisciplinary learning into your curriculum (this applies to any grade level or type of class):

  1. Pre-instructional planning
    Plan and establish the topics students will examine. Develop an action plan—a set of notes and open-ended questions—that can help guide the classroom experience, whether in person or virtual. 
  2. Introduce the methodology to students
    Interdisciplinary teaching and learning look different in a classroom than a traditional approach to education. That’s why it’s crucial to demonstrate how to use interdisciplinary learning to approach issues and solve problems for your students. Explain what interdisciplinary learning is, why it’s important, and how it’s different from discipline-based learning. 
  3. Take it to the classroom
    Show students how to use insights from different disciplines to inform their analysis. Start by exploring questions with an interdisciplinary lens together. This is also a great opportunity to revisit the 9-step approach to interdisciplinary teaching and learning we discussed at the beginning of this blog. 
  4. Practice interdisciplinary thinking
    Ask students to consider an issue using one discipline. Then, ask them to use knowledge from a different discipline to inform their analysis and find a solution. You can ask students to perform this task alone, but it’s helpful to break up students into groups to promote collaboration and invite differing perspectives. Student groups can bring their work back to the entire class and refine their analysis. Experts also suggest, “In a small class setting, educators can ask students to prepare interdisciplinary position papers for each assigned reading that extends the analysis to reflect the interdisciplinary process; consider other disciplinary perspectives, synthesize, and integrate.”
  5. Provide feedback
    Evaluate students using a detailed rubric. Aim to provide students with feedback on their ability to understand the structure and analytical framework of relevant disciplines, as well as how they use knowledge from those disciplines to create an integrated analysis. Experts recommend, “Grading might take the form of check and check plus, and check minus, to simply identify the areas in need of additional skill development. Faculty-student conferences may be necessary for those students struggling to master the integration element of interdisciplinary learning.” Your feedback should help students improve their ability to think in an interdisciplinary fashion throughout the class. 
  6. Assessment
    Teach students to self-evaluate regularly throughout each project, assignment, or analysis. Ask students to rate themselves on their ability to: 
    1. Identify and apply multiple disciplines relevant to the issue or problem they’re studying.
    2. Synthesize insights from multiple disciplines.
    3. Integrate ideas across disciplines.

This line of thinking will help students gauge their progress, identify challenges, and set goals for improvement. 

You can get a high-level understanding of how to apply interdisciplinary learning models with different disciplines using insights from “The Logic of Interdisciplinary Studies” below:

GENERAL FEATURES OF INTERDISCIPLINARY LEARNING MODELS

DISCIPLINEHISTORICAL INFLUENCEGOALS FOR STUDENTSINTEGRATIVE THREADS
Math & ScienceCognition

Constructivism

Curriculum standards
Content coverage

High-order thinking 

Application

Motivation
Inquiry methods

Content

Processes

Objectives
Social Science & Language ArtsWhole language

General systems

Curriculum standards
Content coverage

Inquiry 

Application

Motivation
Time places

Themes

Issues

Content

Objectives
Science, Technology, and SocietyGeneral systems

Progressive education

Citizenship education
Citizenship

Decision-making

Inquiry
Issues

Example of Applying the 6-Step Framework for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning

Let’s use our previous example of examining wage payment laws and wage gaps here. This is a subject that we would normally discuss in an economics class. But you can also examine it from a psychological or sociological lens too. 

Here’s how to use the 6-step framework to teach students about wage payment laws in a conventional economics class through interdisciplinary instruction:

  1. Pre-instruction planning.
    Read about sociology, social psychology, and industrial psychology and find its correlations to wage gaps. Familiarize yourself with foundational terms and concepts you’ll introduce to students. Identify the commonalities and differences in approach between the relevant disciplines and economics. And think of ways to extend the conventional economic model to include relevant insights from other disciplines; you can do this by prompting students with questions and having them prototype answers.
  2. Introduce the methodology to students.
    Start a classroom conversation about wage laws. Introduce the concept of wage gaps and ask students to find out how and why they arise. You can either tell students which disciplines to use to find answers or ask them which subjects can help them find solutions. And remember to explain that taking an interdisciplinary approach to the problem helps them get a deeper understanding of the issue. 
  3. Take it to the classroom.
    Discuss different types of wage gaps (i.e., racial or gender) from an economic standpoint. Then, explore the subject from a sociological and psychological lens, including discrimination and stereotyping. Then, help students see the correlation between wage payment laws, wage gaps, and the implications that come from them.
  4. Practice interdisciplinary thinking.
    Try assigning students with a related assignment that helps them develop interdisciplinary analysis skills. For example, you can ask students to produce an interdisciplinary essay or report on wages and salaries in different job fields.
  5. Provide feedback.
    Review each essay or report to see if students could support their claims using insights from different disciplines to create an integrated analysis of their findings.
  6. Assessment.
    Ask students to evaluate their ability to apply interdisciplinary analysis to their findings. Use their evaluations to understand which students understand the interdisciplinary process and which students need more guidance. 

Advice From Teachers on How to Create Interdisciplinary Projects

Creating interdisciplinary learning projects takes planning and coordination. And what better way to learn than from educators who already teach using interdisciplinary projects? That’s why we asked a few educators in the XQ network for tips you can use to get started.

Tips from Latitude High School:

  • Identify key, meaningful content knowledge or skills that spark thought-provoking conversations across multiple subject areas.
  • Ask a meaningful transdisciplinary question that requires knowledge from multiple subject areas to answer.
  • Identify tier two or three vocabulary words you want students to demonstrate. 
  • Align curriculum and projects to key literacy tests that students will read and discuss.
  • Design background knowledge workshops to support meaningful dialogue between students.
  • Create scaffolds that foster student engagement and prioritize academic rigor.
  • Prepare students for an end-of-project assessment. 
  • Be sure to incorporate reflection time for yourself and your students to unpack how and what they learned.

Tips from DaVinci RISE High School:

  • Promote inquiry and help students develop a personal investment in their work.
  • Ask students to share their findings outside of the classroom—with the community, friends, and family.
  • Start small by consulting with other teachers and collaborate on how to scaffold interdisciplinary instruction.
  • Plan opportunities for students to assess content knowledge.
  • Create clear deliverables for all content areas.
  • Align rubrics and feedback with similar language, scoring, skills, and revision opportunities.

Students Benefit of Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning 

Interdisciplinary help creates meaningful, engaged learning experiences, and it also helps students develop lifelong learning skills essential to their future success. 

For example, the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College suggests that interdisciplinary learning supports students in developing skills and knowledge that bolster their agility as learners:

  • Foundational Knowledge – interdisciplinary approaches improve students’ ability to absorb information and understand concepts.
  • Application – interdisciplinary approaches support students in not just absorbing concepts, but in applying those concepts to novel contexts in new ways as well. 
  • Integration – interdisciplinarity approaches require students to integrate facts and skills across the range of topics they study.
  • Human Dimension – interdisciplinary approaches let students consider real-world and ethical implications of academic problems, bringing a human dimension to their intellectual development.
  • Caring – interdisciplinary approaches create space for passion and curiosity.
  • Learning How-to-Learn – interdisciplinary approaches help students learn how to learn, the very essence of creating lifelong learners.

Final Thoughts on Interdisciplinary Learning

Like adults, teenagers bring different experiences, perspectives, and levels of knowledge into the learning process. And because students’ learning styles are heterogeneous, using a wide variety of frameworks and methodologies can enhance engagement, learning, and retention. 

Interdisciplinary teaching and learning allow for all students—no matter their background, knowledge, or grade level—to contribute to classroom conversations. This helps educators and students develop caring, trusting relationships that promote meaningful and engaged learning experiences.