Integrated Studies

Transdisciplinarity: Thinking Inside and Outside the Box

Students experience deeper learning and start thinking outside the box when their teachers collaborate to present different aspects of the same subject across various disciplines.

January 21, 2016
Photo credit: Kevin Jarrett via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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:

They go on to describe "the ideal worker" of the next decade as being "T-shaped":

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:

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:

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?

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  • 6-8 Middle School
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