More Than a Buzzword: Making Interdisciplinary Learning a Reality
Teachers in different subjects can collaborate on micro-units to reinforce what they teach and help students see how the subjects connect in the real world
Attending school allows students to develop different ways of knowing how to make sense of the world around them. However, the world is not divided into little disciplinary boxes in the same way that high schools typically structure their classes. American high school primarily presents subjects as distinct and disconnected. The idea of integrated studies or interdisciplinary learning often remains a buzzword or aspiration rather than a practice that can realistically be implemented.
Teaching during Covid-19 presented new hurdles and stressors. Yet, during this time, we (a history teacher and a biology teacher) challenged ourselves and piloted an interdisciplinary “micro-unit” using science and history to examine the origins and consequences of race and racism. Our collaboration convinced us that such micro-collaborations are quite doable and will continue to be even in a traditional school year.
Learning about related content in more than one class opened up cognitive bandwidth for our students to dive deeper because their schema for this knowledge was being reinforced and expanded. Many of our students said that examining an issue from the perspective of more than one discipline made it clearer how their classes connected and made it easier to see how subjects in school related to the real world.
We think there are three key things to keep in mind when planning interdisciplinary lessons.
1. Look for Moments of Curricular Overlap
Curriculum and pacing demands are some of the biggest barriers to cross-curricular coordination and are often outside of teachers’ control. Practically speaking, most teachers (including us) can’t just design a monthlong unit of interdisciplinary learning.
Experiment with micro-units—a sequence of three to five lessons of integrated learning that can stand alone in the school year or nest into a larger unit sequence. At the beginning of the year or semester, share syllabi or scope and sequences with your colleagues, and look for any natural places of overlap (in content or skill) or arrange a few days to create parallels between your classes. The number of colleagues in your team can vary, so it’s important to determine what is reasonable and manageable for you.
Developing a habit of proactively looking for connections between your classes makes you more likely to model this sort of thinking in class. If this seems too daunting, look for natural pockets of flexibility in the school year (odd half days, or dead time after state testing), and propose that teachers on your grade team use these pockets to create micro-units of interdisciplinary learning that can be revisited over the course of the year.
2. Choose a Theme and a Shared Summative Assessment
While natural curricular overlaps may end up driving topic selection, also consider student interests or relatable contemporary issues that can be used to target a shared skill in multiple classes. Once we decided on our topic, the first major planning step was to collaborate on one shared summative assessment that counted as a summative grade in both classes. Having a summative assessment that counted in both classes further incentivized our students to participate.
We created a set of discussion questions that students responded to in writing—using a claim, evidence, reasoning structure that allowed us to assess skills taught in both of our classes. The questions were crafted to be broad and overarching, allowing students to integrate and apply knowledge from both science and history classes. We found that working together on the final discussion questions and grading criteria allowed us to share responsibilities so that neither of us was overloaded.
It was best for us to have the discussion happen in the students’ history class. Time and resources were given in both classes to help students prepare for the final discussion. We found that it was best to have a common set of student-facing materials for the unit (used in both classes) so that students had all of their information in one place, and we could easily monitor their work and progress toward the summative assessment.
3. Build Knowledge and Inquiry for Each discipline
With the shared summative assessment in mind, we approached building knowledge and engaging in inquiry from each of our disciplines. Logistically, we knew we would not be able to co-teach these lessons, so we coordinated an approach that still allowed us the flexibility and autonomy necessary to implement our vision in each of our classes. To have a complete picture of the knowledge and skills that students would bring to the summative discussion, we referenced each other’s materials and lesson plans throughout the micro-unit. Each teacher was responsible for selecting the content-specific resources related to the theme, planning the individual classes, and conducting the formative assessment.
For example, when building knowledge about the origins of race, students in biology read about genetic research that negates any biological basis for contemporary racial categorizations and also learned about how the pseudoscience of eugenics was used to justify these categories. Meanwhile, in history, students examined different historical examples of societal practices, legislation, and legal cases to deepen their knowledge about how race has been socially constructed and legally codified.
In a later lesson, students engaged in data analysis in both classes about the consequences of systemic racism. In science class, students also explored data around topics such as maternal health, epigenetics, and environmental injustice. In history, they looked at patterns such as voting, housing segregation, and wealth. These lesson plans set up parallel experiences of related learning that converged in the summative assessment, allowing each teacher to bring their expertise to the broader theme.