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Interdisciplinary Learning as a Classroom Management Method

James Paterson

Interdisciplinary learning raises the bar by making connections.

The classroom management method known as interdisciplinary learning (IL) can take shape in a variety of ways. It an be as simple as talking to elementary students during reading time about the historical events surrounding a favorite book, or as complex as having a master's degree cohort consider research on the interaction of environmentalism and the economy. But it doesn't have to be an added classroom management chore for most K-12 teachers, experts say, because they often have been doing it already and tend to think in these terms, and understand how it can be employed with students – and how it pays off. Heather Coffey, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, in a concise description of interdisciplinary learning (IL) recently, says the classroom management method can be used for a variety of lessons. "In interdisciplinary teaching, educators apply methods and language from more than one academic discipline to examine a theme, issue, question, problem, topic, or experience," she says. "Interdisciplinary methods simply work to create connections between traditionally discrete disciplines such as mathematics, the sciences, social studies or history, and English language arts."

How the Interdisciplinary Learning Classroom Management Method Benefits Students

It benefits students in a number of ways, experts have found, in research dating back nearly 30 years:

  • Recognizing their bias. It can help students overcome preconceived notions by letting them see how different disciplines explore a topic, opening them up to adopting a range of approaches to a subject and changing their opinions about them.
  • Thinking critically. Experts say they can acquire both more declarative knowledge (factual information) and procedural knowledge (process-based information). They must, for instance, learn different rules of evidence and different ways that disciplines evaluate it and think more deeply.
  • Tolerating ambiguity. Interdisciplinary lessons allow students to see that uncertainty can result from exploring different perspectives on issues, which allows them to more broadly understand the complexity of problems and the challenges of solving them. 
  • Appreciating ethical concerns. Ethical considerations are often part of an interdisciplinary examination of an issue and it is valuable – even at an early age – to be aware of them.

Coffey says that often-important topics are avoided or ignored in schools because they are complex or involve more than one discipline -- and interdisciplinary work solves that problem. Also, she says, a typical daily schedule forces students to shift from one subject to another throughout the day offering no continuity. They don't have an opportunity to see the connections between subjects.

"Interdisciplinary teaching differs from field-based teaching in that it does not necessarily carve out spaces for each individual subject area, and instead, connects content and consciously identifies the relationships between these subjects," she says.

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In addition, since students learn in different ways, often an interdisciplinary theme allows them to approach a project using those skills with which they are most comfortable or strongest.

In fact, some experts recommend that teachers introduce the topic and let students find ways to investigate it with an IL approach.

Such independent learning, along with project-based and blended learning, are a good fit for IL, as is flipped learning, where students explore a topic with the teacher present and available too guide them.

"The simplest way to support interdisciplinary teaching and learning is to let students know it’s an option," according to a College Board report. "Teachers should encourage students to look for opportunities to get involved with interdisciplinary learning and assessment as it provides the student ownership over their own learning. Student-directed, authentic projects seem to motivate students more than the 'one size fits all' interdisciplinary projects for the entire class."

Ulcca Joshi Hansen, associate director of national outreach and community building for Education Reimagined, which advocates for learner-centered education, says that such teaching also improves retention of material and creates higher order and critical thinking, which is important for the subject at hand and for success in the future.

“With this sort of teaching, you are making more neural connections so that the student is more likely to retain the material and learn it in a more sophisticated way,” she says.

Other experts believe it simply a more fundamental way to learn.

“Educational experiences are more authentic and of greater value to students when the curricula reflects real life, which is multifaceted rather than being compartmentalized into neat subject-matter packages,” says the National Council for Teachers of English. NCTE and other experts believe that real world problems are complicated and involve many different areas of knowledge and skills – so our educational approach should reflect that, even in elementary school.

That might mean in lower grades that one teacher requires students simply to see a topic from different perspectives. (An art project can easily involve math and a science project can include talk about how science and engineering has changed history – from the discovery of gun powder or nuclear bombs to the design of ships that brought explorers to North America or send rockets into space.) But a teacher also might collaborate outside the classroom with an art instructor, music teacher – or even physical education classes – to make a connection between a classroom lesson and their work.

Middle schools are often structured for interdisciplinary teaching between various disciplines because they have teams where teachers of different subjects meet regularly. One report from the National Middle School Association noted that simply because those teams exist doesn't mean they will implement good structures and they must be deliberate about planning.

Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Md., made lesson planning across subject matter a goal through the traditional grade-based teams, but also in special planning sessions where all teachers paired up with others to discuss their planned lessons and consider how they could collaborate and connect the two.

At Maggie L. Walker Governor’s High School in Richmond, the approach has been used with a variety of subjects, according to Ryan Webb, a math and tech teacher, who reported that the IL can be used for projects in math and science easily. He and other teachers try to make that connection, along with art.

“Even things as simple as illustrating a Pythagorean Theorem proof forces students to take that one extra step beyond memorizing a few variables," he wrote in a blog. "Teachers should start small with a simple project, with a low risk of failure,” he says.

The College Board, which is responsible for Advanced Placement (AP) courses and the SAT test, advocates for IL and ticks off several benefits for teachers:

  • Sharing ideas about your discipline and teaching with enthusiastic colleagues with a common goal.
  • Common learning goals are addressed by multiple teachers in different classes – more efficient way to teach, increased student success.
  • Seeing one’s own discipline from a fresh and energizing perspective – building excitement about teaching.
  • Having an opportunity to learn from students’ sometimes unexpected interdisciplinary connections, and then apply to in class.
  • Having students see teachers model continued learning, interest in their discipline and in those of others, collaborating with peers, making connections between what they know and new ideas, working from new and different perspectives, problem-solving, creativity, flexibility.
  • Providing more ways for students to learn and demonstrate their skills and understandings so that teachers can better assess them. IL highlights their strengths.
  • Encouraging students to become personally invested in their work and perhaps then requiring less teacher direction.

Coffey suggests that teachers and administrators carefully plan interdisciplinary efforts and make certain they complement other work.

"Students should have a range of curriculum experiences that reflects both a discipline-filled and an interdisciplinary orientation …" she says. "Students cannot fully benefit from interdisciplinary studies until they acquire a solid grounding in the various disciplines that interdisciplinary attempts to bridge."

Teachers also should share IL units with all faculty, administration, and school community members so that they can have the opportunity to contribute their knowledge and skills, she says. Others say they should have others observe them and get their feedback and the opinions of their students.

She also recommends that students participate in the planning of IL where possible and that it be always be grounded in the "Connections and relevance between topics" from "A variety of perspectives."