I was eating Saltine crackers with cream cheese and raspberry jam when my neighbor's four-year-old asked me for one. He gobbled it up and asked for another. As I was making him the second, I asked, "Don't you just love cream cheese?" He said, "Yuck," grabbed the second cracker, and ran off.
I chuckled and realized that he had not yet discerned the individual flavor of each ingredient. For my little neighbor, it was simply a singular yummy cracker, not the synergistic masterpiece of multiple distinct flavors merged into something so much more.
I wished I had strawberry jam at the time so I that could have made him another variation. I'm sure he would have loved that, too. If he'd asked for another, I would have asked him if he knew what the white stuff was. After he ate the second offering, I'd tell him that it was cream cheese. My goal would have been having him realize that cream cheese was not as yucky as he thought.
The Synergy Sweet Spot
This fruit-and-cheese masterpiece is an analog for multidisciplinary learning. Multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary learning is a "whole" or "comprehensive" method that covers an idea, topic, or text by integrating multiple knowledge domains. It is a very powerful method of teaching that crosses the boundaries of a discipline or curriculum in order to enhance the scope and depth of learning. Each discipline sheds light on the topic like the facets of a gem.
My little neighbor could only experience one facet, the singular flavor. His taste buds and flavor memory are immature. Although he knew the individual flavors, he could not yet comprehend the possibility that the flavors could actually enhance each other. Synergy is the term used to describe this flavor enhancement. It was foreign to my little neighbor. I am sure he wouldn't have believed me if I'd told him that the white stuff was cream cheese.
Synergy is the primary force behind multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary learning. The benefits of the multidisciplinary teaching method are both significant and well documented, including but not limited to:
- Uncovering preconceptions or recognizing bias
- Advancing critical thinking
- Helping students develop their cognitive abilities
- Promoting significant learning
- Promoting understanding when students learn in heterogeneous ways
- Minimal cost and maximum reward
It is my belief that the power of multidisciplinary teaching is much more than just synergy. It is also about understanding how each discipline contributes to the whole. In other words, students will learn the capabilities, characteristics, and limitations of the individual disciplines when they understand how that discipline contributes to their newly learned knowledge of the subject. They will also begin to think holistically, and they will be able to deduce why it is important to learn a subject they would otherwise dislike.
Unpacking Pandora's Box
Imagine being able to teach character development, basic math, and basic science concepts via a classic text. How about basic geography, writing skills, and point of view from that same text? Is it possible to also teach about comprehension, sequence, literal vs. non-literal, imagination, plot, theme, compare and contrast, opinion pieces, vocabulary, friendship, bullying, and critical thinking?
The answer is yes, and the genre is legends, myths, and fables. The Common Core English-language arts standard suggests the use of legends, myths, and fables for grades two and three. Not only can these classic texts be used for multi-grade ELA curricula, but they can also be used for compare-and-contrast purposes.
For instance, a simple web search of "the myth of Pandora's Box" will yield many different versions of the same story. Some are classics, some are direct translations, some are modern adaptations, and some are written as fairy tales. Pandora's Box can also introduce ancient history and geography. It can even be used to start a lesson on creationism by leveraging the fact that Pandora is the first human created by the Gods.
Finally, the story of Pandora's Box ends with the release of "hope." Imagine asking little minds questions such as: "What is hope? What if Pandora's Box did not end with the release of hope?" I cannot think of a better way to introduce philosophy to young children.
Fables and Standards
With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, it is now easier to incorporate multidisciplinary methods across subjects as well as grade levels. For instance, well-known fables like The Tortoise and the Hare and The Crow and the Pitcher can be applied to the following standards:
- Reading Literature: RL.2, RL.3
- Reading Informational Text: RI.2, RI.3
- Writing: W.1, W.2, W.3, W.4
- Mathematics - Measurement: MD.2, MD.3
Fables can also be used to teach map making and critical thinking. I have seen teachers in higher elementary grades and middle school special ed classrooms adapt the material to their age group and course of study.
Please give it a try. Imagine the possibilities when you incorporate fables into your lesson plans, coordinate with other teachers, and create that multidisciplinary masterpiece of flavor that your students will gobble up.