In my view, interdisciplinary project-based learning (PBL) is some of the most important work we do in schools when it comes to preparing students for the real world, as life beyond the schoolhouse is a series of interdisciplinary projects that require us to use knowledge and skills from myriad areas to respond to challenges before us.
In my time as the head of a project-based school focused on interdisciplinary learning, I led teachers to collaboratively develop complex projects. Although the task was daunting at times, we learned how to make our projects more engaging and effective each year. PBL is naturally a little messy—and it should be—but there are strategies that can help us design meaningful interdisciplinary projects that will run smoothly and meet our educational objectives.
Map Out Disciplinary Benchmarks to Find Authentic Challenges
Interdisciplinary projects challenge teachers to look for points of intersection. For example, a challenge like “How might we help improve access to clean water in our own community and beyond?” could be posed to a middle school class.
This question is meaningful, relevant, and interdisciplinary. A science class could focus on water quality, including testing and filtration. Mathematics could contribute statistical analyses and graphic models to help students understand and communicate the challenges of water access in different parts of the world. At the same time, social studies could study physical and human geography or water management in ancient civilizations. English could plan to read a novel like Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water in the same term. In this way, students examine the question from an interdisciplinary perspective, and each subject still meets academic benchmarks for a given term.
Ideally, grade-level teams should have time together to chart out steps, maintain effective pacing, identify key milestones, and scaffold activities. When collaborative planning is running smoothly, each teacher owns their subject strand but also understands the whole and how varied strands/subject areas intersect.
Focus on Relevant Disciplinary Connections
Some disciplines are more flexible than others and are able to shift the timing of their curriculum to align with a meaty challenge. For example, language arts teachers can often shift the order of novels, while mathematics may have tightly sequenced pacing requirements.
When possible, map out the least flexible disciplines first and then add the more flexible subjects with an eye to creating meaningful points of intersection.
Mathematics can be the hardest to weave into projects effectively, particularly when the project doesn’t naturally align with the appropriate mathematics benchmarks for that particular grade level’s curriculum. However, when math lives at the heart of a PBL question, such as a project on the challenge of poverty, math can actually lead the project.
Consider a driving question such as “How might we determine—and help ensure—a dignified wage for all in a given region?” In this case, algebra becomes the central through line, allowing students to examine the economics of poverty. Algebra students might study issues such as whether the minimum wage of a given region allows a family of four to meet their basic needs. At the same time, social studies could address what we mean by a “dignified life” and the effects of intergenerational poverty.
If we want to add more disciplines to the mix, science might address the health challenges that come from poverty, such as overreliance on fast food in places lacking healthy and accessible alternatives, and language arts might read a work like Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun to build empathy with the challenges of intergenerational poverty. Similarly, a project on air quality born from the chemistry curriculum could easily involve the humanities.
Plan Student-Centered Assessment and Progress Tracking
In any PBL experience, student-led documentation and evaluation are important to ensuring meaningful growth experiences and the achievement of academic benchmarks. In an interdisciplinary PBL, such strategies are all the more important because there are more moving parts and pieces under the supervision of different teachers.
Using task logs and other technological tools, particularly those used outside of education in the world of work, can allow students to participate centrally in that tracking and collection of artifacts that show their growth over time. By shifting more of the responsibility to students, we also lower the demands on teachers and position students as protagonists of their learning journeys.
In entrepreneurship projects, for example, students often work on very individualized products and business plans. There are many small steps to track, such as reaching out to experienced entrepreneurs, ideating possible products, and investigating existing businesses and designs. There are also more significant milestones to track, such as designing a logo and marketing campaign, developing various prototypes of the product with the support of peer and expert feedback, and developing a business plan and budget.
If the interdisciplinary teacher team tries to manage all of these threads for students, we are not just creating unnecessary work for ourselves: We are also robbing students of the opportunity to learn self-management skills. By designing tracking systems with students and having them take the lead, we teach them much more than just how to design a business; we teach them the skills needed to manage one as well.
The most valuable element of any interdisciplinary PBL is the way it can mirror the world of work beyond the classroom, in both its focus and function. How are scientists, artists, mathematicians, social scientists, and policy makers collaborating to solve challenges? How do they make use of expertise in the world around them?
Yong Zhao points out that adults collaborate across skill sets and outsource jobs we don’t have the skills to accomplish. If we think this way about the learning experience, our goal becomes less about creating identical experiences for every student and more about allowing the schoolhouse to look and function a little more like the real world beyond its walls.