Skip to content

Blog post

Should we ‘teach’ interdisciplinarity at school?

Richard Donnelly

Should we ‘teach’ interdisciplinarity at school? This blog post suggests that we should. If you think of real world problems in engineering, health, politics and so on, these require interdisciplinary thinking. Some may argue that students need to know the basics of disciplinary knowledge before they are able to apply this across disciplines. Some may think that this should be done later in life in a career or via a ‘Liberal Arts’ degree at university for example. I think that these deeper connections can be made in school using methods such as ‘project based’ learning for example. One or more curriculum areas can work together to develop academically rigorous learning with an authentic interdisciplinary outcome. Arguments have been made about creativity and interdisciplinary thinking e.g. by Ken Robinson. However, some don’t always agree what he has to say. Teachers too can learn to embrace their own ignorance and work across disciplines to achieve greater outcomes for their students. Maybe we need what David Didau calls ‘Foxy Thinking‘.

Through interdisciplinary approaches, knowledge can be interleaved and spaced across disciplines that practice similar knowledge and skills

There is a focus on the domain of qualification in many schools. Interdisciplinarity can support this domain by deepening student understanding by linking concepts across discipline silos. Much has been written recently about ‘interleaving’ and ‘spaced’ practice and how this can support student learning. Through interdisciplinary approaches, knowledge can be interleaved and spaced across disciplines that practice similar knowledge and skills. Making these direct links explicit to students can only be of benefit. For example, the topic of ecosystems is taught in both GCSE Biology and Geography or maths skills that can be applied to physics modules and conceptual understanding. Perhaps this could be of benefit to teachers too, working collaboratively across disciplines, sharing knowledge and experiences of pedagogical approaches and joint planning. However, interdisciplinarity is also about impacting on students as a person in the domain of what Gert Biesta refers to as ‘subjectification’. Students should also be asked to consider and problem solve some of the issues affecting the world using an interdisciplinary approach.

Cross discipline ‘projects’ that involve the solving of a problem work well and can motivate students. Take the issue of water quality for example. In this project, students were asked to combine their geographical knowledge of development issues, GDP and life expectancy rates and migration for example with Chemistry understanding. They actually had to solve the problem from the perspective of a slum dweller, with few resources, to actively ‘clean’ some contaminated water and therefore empathising with the user. Applying their knowledge across the disciplines can deepen student understanding of topics such as development and filtration that are traditionally taught in a subject silo.

A simpler way to connect the curriculum without the synergy amongst colleagues required for an interdisciplinary project or problem based approach, is to connect to big ideas. Take the concept of ‘Sustainable Cities’ and a year 10 year group who are studying GCSE and BTEC subjects. Student’s progress towards qualifications can be enhanced through making connections between their subjects and the challenge of ‘Sustainable Cities’ even in abstract ways.

Donnelly image

Spacing is occurring in sessions where they are asked to connect multiple disciplinary knowledge to a single challenge. Also, by connecting GCSE subject knowledge and skills to an authentic challenge such as those challenges facing cities, we can embrace the ‘qualification’ domain but also the ‘socialisation’ and ‘subjectifcation’ domains. In a recent session I ran using this method, students connected their learning in geography on coastal management and the conflicts that different approaches take to the fact that cities face similar local community conflicts too. Sustainable cities require engineering solutions. Connecting learning about social groups and how they could interact in cities from sociology lessons and applying learning about histograms in maths lessons to the outcome of their projects are other examples. Perhaps applying disciplinary specific knowledge and skills to a real world challenge could focus students when sometimes it is difficult to connect GCSE knowledge beyond the classroom in a disciplinary silo.

Perhaps an ideal would be to create truly interdisciplinary connected curriculums alongside reformed qualifications. Could a truly interdisciplinary curriculum with the removal of subject silos work in the UK context? Is it worth it? Surely our students can be more confident, knowledgeable and creative problem solvers with such approaches.


Gert Biesta: ‘Good education and the teacher’ in Flip the System pp 82

Recommended blog on interdisciplinarity

Carl Gombrich