Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Ed. D.
A talk with Heidi Hayes Jacobs about interdisciplinary curriculum design
Over the course of this workshop, you have learned about the history of interdisciplinary learning and the concepts that shape it. You heard from experts in the field and saw examples of interdisciplinary units in schools around the nation. Finally, you created your own interdisciplinary unit. We hope you enjoyed doing this! Now we invite you to use all that you have learned and join our expert in a discussion about interdisciplinary learning.
In this section, we'll talk with our expert, Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs. We will consider some of the ways in which integrating interdisciplinary units into your teaching might affect your classroom or school culture. Using your own unit as a jumping-off point, we invite you to think about the following implementation issues and questions. If you find the issues intriguing, please join our discussion boards and add your thoughts to the debate!
Why isn't interdisciplinary learning more commonly used?
Actually, interdisciplinary learning has become more pervasive since many state standards directly ask for such linkages. However, there tends to be a split between elementary and middle/high school grades. In elementary, instruction focuses on skill development: reading, writing, basic math, and thinking skills applied to content. Once students leave elementary school, the focus has traditionally shifted from the teaching of skills to the coverage of content. This is still the norm in many schools despite decades of research that says we should integrate curriculum content with the teaching of skills and thinking processes. There has also been polarity between those who promote interdisciplinary learning and those who fear that it will replace discipline-based learning, and for a long time this limited interdisciplinary approaches in schools. This conflict has pretty much disappeared. Interdisciplinary curricula are becoming more and more common.
How do you find connections between the disciplines that really work?
A forced connection is a contradiction in terms -- that's weak design. A connection based on a mundane organizing center or theme can be an interesting moment for students, but you don't necessarily get any building from it.
Over the history of interdisciplinary curriculum design, more often than not, what we have seen have been coordinated units in parallel disciplines
1 - for example, two teachers teaching separate units on World War II and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK might decide to give these units at the same time in the calendar year. Parallel design allows students to learn about a topic from the perspectives of multiple discipline fields at the same time but does not use organizing centers and essential questions to make those disciplines work together in a truly interdisciplinary manner.
A well-designed interdisciplinary unit uses organizing centers and essential questions as a conceptual lens that validates each discipline base as having depth and integrity all its own, while at the same time revealing connections among the disciplines. Finding these connections encourages students to think at a higher cognitive level.
What exactly is an "essential question"?
Interdisciplinary design is highlighted by a deliberate, elevated, and overt declaration and examination of essential questions, or conceptually oriented questions that spark curiosity and frame the scope and sequence of learning. Essential questions in an interdisciplinary unit are like chapter headings in a book; each one is a focus of inquiry.
If kids learn from a curriculum shaped by essential questions, they will be more likely to truly interact with the content. Instead of answering, "Stuff..." when asked what they learned, students will retain higher levels of knowledge. Essential questions are like mental Velcro; they give kids a "sticky" place to which their thoughts adhere. They also give students a sense of ownership of their curriculum from knowing what questions are directing their learning and why.
How do I collaborate with my colleagues?
You have alternatives if your colleagues don't want to work with you; it does not automatically mean that you cannot bring interdisciplinary learning into your curriculum. You can teach an interdisciplinary unit on your own, using your own solutions and links to other disciplines. Keep in mind in your discussions with your colleagues that teaming can often bring about better overall relationships and can build a good network among teachers. While some fellow teachers may feel trepidation at first, over a slow adjustment period you may all find greater collegiality through teaming.
How do I find common planning time?
This is one of the most serious problems confronting teachers in all areas of planning, not just interdisciplinary curriculum design. What are some solutions? The administrators of your school are in the best position to effect a lasting change for the better in terms of planning time. They can provide more opportunities for teachers to share and pool ideas and execute those carefully planned ideas in class, simply by the philosophy they bring to planning the school schedule. If change is not forthcoming from the administrative level, you will have to find solutions with your team members. Some teams use evenings for common planning time; others use the summer break to do their planning. A great way to make use of technology is to correspond with fellow teachers by email. Some schools develop their own Web sites to increase communication options.
How do I address the pressure of teaching to the tests and the standards?
There is no question
that the "treadmill effect" of getting through the day can get
in the way. On the other hand, implementing an
interdisciplinary curriculum can be beneficial to the teaching
of particular standards. Remember, your entire semester or
year will not necessarily consist of interdisciplinary units;
rather, these should be staggered with units taught via other
design blueprints. If you seek out the standards that require
interdisciplinary curriculum design and address these during
your interdisciplinary unit(s), then you should have plenty of
time to cover materials required by testing in other
I want to implement an interdisciplinary unit. How do I find enough instructional time?
It is true that scheduling has a major effect on students' abilities to learn in different ways. The work of Dr. Robert Lynn Canady (University of Virginia) has proven that schools with block scheduling provide much more opportunity for students to accomplish interactive and fulfilling interdisciplinary work. Even in elementary schools where classrooms are self-contained, teachers can come up against a scheduling problem; pullouts and other disruptions can interrupt the flow of learning. Sustained instructional time frames provide the most conducive environment for interdisciplinary learning. If you do not have block scheduling, you will have to work to the best of your ability to carefully plan for and execute during the time you have with your students. This is an important issue to discuss with your fellow teachers -- you might find someone who is interested in team teaching for two periods.
How do I avoid the confusion of educational jargon?
It is very easy for miscommunication to occur. The key thing is to establish a common vocabulary at the building level so that administrators and teachers have a common, operational set of words to use. The "buzzwords" from this workshop are a good set of terms to use in describing and working with interdisciplinary learning.
How are students assessed in an interdisciplinary unit?
This is a common concern of interdisciplinary teams. In units at the middle and high school levels, students will be producing assessment products that incorporate multiple disciplines at once. It is easy to become confused about who should grade what. Often, what happens is that a student will produce an essay, and the team assigns the writing and grammar grade to the language arts teacher, while the grade for content and analysis is given by whoever's teaching the other discipline represented in the essay. This kind of grading by default can send a bad message to kids: "You don't have to have good grammar and writing skills in science; those only matter in language arts, and your science grade rests on the content and analysis." If you are teaching an interdisciplinary unit, the last thing you want to do is segregate the disciplines all over again by how you grade!
Develop a rubric that gives a clear definition of the grading criteria for all assessments. The rubric should apply to all the disciplines, and students should be assessed on skills like writing that do span the disciplines, even if the grade is ultimately given by the science or math teacher. Your team should post this rubric in the classroom so that students can see what terms apply to their grades. Then, team members can look at the assessments as a whole and parcel them out in a logical manner.
Text for this section from "An Interview with Heidi Hayes Jacobs," 11/20/00, Rye, N.Y.
Congratulations! You have now gone through a full cycle of designing, reviewing, and implementing an interdisciplinary unit. If you have not yet visited the Implementation section, please do so now. We hope you have enjoyed the process, and wish you many thrilling learning experiences with your students and colleagues!