Several years ago when I was teaching eighth-grade Latin American history, we were engaged in a unit on the Mayan civilization. During a discussion one day, a student asked, "Is this the same Mayan civilization that we are learning about in Spanish class?"
Her comment made me stop in my tracks. I replied, "Yes, it is the same civilization."
After class, I made a beeline to her Spanish teacher to learn about how she was teaching her unit on the Mayans. We both chuckled when we realized that we were teaching the same topic at the same time. And we were both pleased that the student made the connection.
From that point on, we made a concerted effort to coordinate and integrate our teaching. However, the school schedule did not permit deeper integration of our two courses. We had to settle for integrated learning.
Integrated learning is the most rudimentary level of collaboration across disciplines. At the very least, it allows teachers and, more importantly, students to make connections across disciplines, creating an opportunity for greater depth and complexity.
However, one of the key competencies for the 21st century is to position students with the skills and habits of mind to be transdisciplinary thinkers. The Institute for the Future (IFTF) has identified transdisciplinarity as a key and essential skill for the future work force. In their report on future work skills (PDF), the IFTF writes:
Many of today's global problems are just too complex to be solved by one specialized discipline (think global warming or overpopulation). These multifaceted problems require transdisciplinary solutions.
They go on to describe "the ideal worker" of the next decade as being "T-shaped":
[T]hey bring deep understanding of at least one field, but have the capacity to converse in the language of a broader range of disciplines. This requires a sense of curiosity and a willingness to go on learning far beyond the years of formal education.
As schools engage in conversations and planning around Next Generation Learning, it is essential to begin designing opportunities for students to develop transdisciplinarity -- but not at the expense of deep content knowledge. The T-shape is a valuable visual to consider.
Inside the Box and Out-of-the-Box Thinking
Here is an evolutionary approach to begin developing a ladder toward transdisciplinarity:
1. Establishing the Foundation
What does it mean to think like a historian, a biologist, a mathematician, a linguist? In the core, foundational classes that use disciplinary thinking and learning, schools need to help students understand what is actually inside "the box" before launching students to think outside of it. There is tremendous value in being able to dig deep inside of discipline and to develop understanding and critical thinking from the lens of a disciplinary thinker.
2. Fostering Collaboration
Collaboration within schools should happen within disciplines and through shared teaching arrangements where more than one teacher teaches a course. Ideally, departments will share an office to foster dialogue across grade levels, promoting innovation and design. Once the comfort levels have been created, the opportunity exists for teachers to begin branching out beyond departments into interdisciplinary teams and curriculum design. Perhaps as a first step, the art and history teachers would collaborate to develop and team-teach a course together.
3. Whole-Grade Learning
Schools can move to transdisiplinary units across an entire grade level that is examining a topic in depth.
4. Global Grand Challenges
At the most advanced and developed level, schools can extend transdisciplinary design into an exploration of some of the Global Grand Challenges to invite cross topics into course development. These challenges have the following purpose:
Grand Challenges is a family of initiatives fostering innovation to solve key global health and development problems. These initiatives use challenges to focus attention and effort on specific problems, and they can be traced back to the mathematician David Hilbert, who over a century ago defined a set of unsolved problems to spark progress in the field of mathematics.
Schools can also have students tackle one or several of the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges. These challenges are designed with the following in mind:
With input from people around the world, an international group of leading technological thinkers were asked to identify the Grand Challenges for engineering in the 21st century. From urban centers to remote corners of Earth, the depths of the oceans to space, humanity has always sought to transcend barriers, overcome challenges, and create opportunities that improve life in our part of the universe.
Students are eager for the chance to tackle "wicked problems." In my earlier Edutopia post on Global Online Academy, I mentioned how our students were most drawn to sign up for a course with GOA because of the focus on cross topics.
By their very nature, the Grand Global Challenges and the Engineering Grand Challenges demand transdisciplinarity. Students are forced to utilize multiple disciplines to begin developing solutions to ambitious and bold problems. And these challenges require a deep understanding of multiple perspectives and lenses.
We should not leave it up to the students to accidentally stumble upon connections across disciplines, as my eighth-grade history student did when she realized that two of her teachers were independently teaching her about the Mayan civilization.What does transdisciplinarity look like in your school?