Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Timeless Read from 1989

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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I have the good fortune of being both a collaborator and a dear friend with Heidi Hayes Jacobs. As we continue to generate fresh ideas in relation to our work projects, she recently gave me a copy of one of her earliest books — Interdisciplinary Curriculum (ASCD, 1989).

Though the book is out of print (you can buy a used copy here), it is timeless as educators consider the vibrancy of organizing learning through approaches such as STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics), phenomenon-based learning, challenge-based learning, and project based learning.

I crafted this post to capture a few snippets for your consideration from this rich text. Below are culled excerpts from the book — I would love to see how it connects with your thinking.

My Highlights

What Interdisciplinary Curriculum Is

Curriculum making is a creative solution to a problem (10).

Interdisciplinary curriculum experiences provide an opportunity for a more relevant, less fragmented, and stimulating experience for students. When properly designed and when criteria for excellence are met, students break with the traditional view of knowledge and begin to actively foster a range of perspectives that will serve them in the larger world (10).

Knowledge gained in an interdisciplinary environment is mutually reinforcing … By its very definition, “interdisciplinary” implies cooperation, not only among academic disciplines, but among people (43).

Interdisciplinary Curriculum

  • Discipline: one subject/course/unit at a time and teacher references to concepts or skills that transfer.
  • Parallel: re-sequencing existing curriculum to facilitate linkages.
  • Multi-Disciplinary: related disciplines come together in a formal unit or course to investigate a theme or issue.
  • Interdisciplinary: a full range of disciplines in the school curriculum come together in a formal unit or course to investigate a theme or issue. (e.g., Environmental Studies course, unit on flight).
  • Integrated Day: time is structured according to the needs of the students and the needs of the curriculum are planned around them. (e.g., Montessori)
  • Complete Program: students live in the school environment and create the curriculum out of their day-to-day lives. (e.g., Summerhill)

Benefits

  • Acquisition of vital learning skills would be enhanced, perhaps significantly, by reinforcement and refinement through a range of applications.
  • Students would be given a far more coherent set of learning experiences — they would know why they were being taught various skills and they would know how to better mobilize themselves to make sense of curriculum content.
  • Teachers from different departments would have a means of working together toward common goals without sacrificing their own subject matter concerns.
  • “Process” and “content” goals would be unified; they would not compete against one another (81).

It makes obvious sense to try to build solid connections between the development of skills and the teaching of content, because the “skills” may be helpful — even essential — to students trying to unlock the content (79).

The metacurriculum is comprised of learning skills and strategies selected on their basis of their value in helping students (1) acquire the curriculum content being taught and (2) develop the capacity to think and learn independently (80).

While many arrangements are possible, a plan for at least some degree of mutual reinforcement is necessary for a learning skill or strategy to become a well-established, flexible part of the student’s cognitive repertoire (89).

The most obvious payoff is a gain in students’ mastery of the metacurriculum—improvement in thinking and learning skills… Students are likely to become more autonomous and proactive in their conduct as thinkers and learners. They are also likely to be more prepared to make connections between texts that at first seem quite separate (94).

Criteria and Development for Interdisciplinary Programs

Two criteria for effective interdisciplinary programs:

  • Carefully conceived design features: a scope and sequence, a cognitive taxonomy to encourage thinking skills, behavioral indicators of attitudinal change, and a solid evaluation scheme.
  • Must use both discipline-based and interdisciplinary experiences for students in the curriculum.

Organizing center or lens can be a theme (e.g., pioneers, humor), issue (e.g., climate change, treatment in refugee camps), or problem (e.g., end of world hunger, building space station on Mars). A good integrative lens not only engages students in abstract thinking, but gives them a powerful tool … an integrative lens provides a thinking strategy for inquiry, analysis, and understanding (76).

  • Engages students in a thoughtful confrontation with the subject matters.
  • Fosters a level of abstraction in students thinking that they are otherwise not likely to reach (75).

Integrative efforts do not always have to integrate across all the subject matters (73). The aim is not to have an equal number of associations per discipline; rather it is to promote the deliberate examination of the topic through discipline perspectives (56-57). Validity within the disciplines requires teachers representing each discipline that the concepts identified are not merely related to their subjects but are important to them (27).

Questions to help determine thematic lens

  • Can the lens be applied broadly? It applies to a wide range of topic areas, including, but not limited to, the ones being taught.
  • Can the lens be used throughout the topic?
  • Does the lens disclose fundamental patterns?
  • Does the lens reveal similarities and contrasts?
  • Will the lens fascinate your students?

Examples:

  • Patterns. May be helpful to keep it broad for young students (e.g., thinking about similarities and differences) but should become more honed for older students to emphasize certain types of patterns (e.g., symmetry, cyclic, repetition, escalation).
  • Constancy and change.
  • Dependence and Independence.

Cautionary Notes from Experience: must occur within the realities of school time and space.

  • Nuts and bolts: time, budget, and schedule. Common planning time for teachers, flexibility in the day/week to shift instructional minutes with students, budget for field trips, technology to bring experts in, potential added staffing costs.
  • Political support: from superintendent to parents to other colleagues. Has to have the support of relevant adults to not only generate student interest but also to make it sustainable.
  • Personal concerns: collaborations that interdisciplinary work requires can be a practical challenge (planning and implementing) as well as an interpersonal challenge.

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