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Why Turn to Interdisciplinary Learning?

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How do the words interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary feel? They can both give rise to confusion, resistance, wonder, but then are often abandoned. After all, what do they have to do with accountability for minutes of instruction and preparation for standardized tests? How much do we really know and understand about the "inter" or "trans" nature of everything?  And finally, how much do leaders know about how to lead teachers to a place where it can happen?

The first step, we think, is to spend time becoming familiar with the possibilities these interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary experiences offer students.  There are no "10 steps to leading an interdisciplinary school" because each school is made up of a faculty with different strengths and capacities, with different avenues for professional development, with different student populations, and willingness to change.

Purpose is central to understanding.  Why we do something is key to understanding what it is we are doing.  That is obvious in our daily lives.  We eat because we are hungry.  We exercise because we want to be healthy.  We service our cars so they will not break down.  But most often when students ask, "Why do we need to know this?" the answers have little to do with purpose in the real world.  At the edges of interdisciplinary trans-disciplinary work, answers can be found. 

Artist, Dorothea Rockburne, mathemagician, Arthur Benjamin, and a Khan Academy teacher (see below) all offer insight into the world of the authentic, interdisciplinary world. It may give rise to fear that pulling away from the traditional subject organization will not prepare students for scores on standardized tests.  But how can that be true?  If students, even our youngest, understand nature or art, for example, through their mathematical explanation, and are motivated toward their understanding of both because of the wonder of those relationships, how can that not lead to a deeper understanding of art, nature, and mathematics?  To be clear, we are not suggesting a unit of study, or a day on Fibonacci numbers. We are suggesting a different way of looking at how the edges of these studies overlap with purpose.

Might learning math by studying flowers or pinecones not only keep youngsters engaged but reduce the time, in elementary school, required for a separate math lesson and then a science lesson?  Might a student who learned that way in elementary school enter high school with deeper understanding of both math and science and be ready for a more robust learning experience?  Might the math teacher and the art teacher working together some of the time, make learning both subjects more meaningful? These three videos are offered to open minds and begin conversations. 

Dorothea Rockburne


Arthur Benjamin


Khan Academy

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