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What is interdisciplinary learning?
What are the roots of interdisciplinary learning, and how has it evolved over time?
How might interdisciplinary learning affect you, your colleagues, and your students?




What are the roots of interdisciplinary learning, and how has it evolved over time?

image Interdisciplinary learning has been an active issue in the United States since the 1890s, and received considerable attention from education theorist and statesman John Dewey 1 in the early part of the twentieth century. The concept had a new resurgence in the 1960s through the research of Hilda Taba (1966) 2 and other education experts. During the 1960s, open classrooms became common in American schools. Educators began to formulate collaborative units, and creativity came to be considered the most important element in curriculum design. The 1970s saw a backlash against open classrooms. The focus of the educational community shifted away from authentic, individualized assessment toward standardized assessments 3, which removed subjectivity from assessment to the greatest degree possible (for more information, please go to the Assessment, Evaluation, and Curriculum Redesign workshop). By the 1980s, a new need to teach higher-order thinking skills 4 arose. Schools responded by instituting special programs to address this need, but for the most part, these programs remained "extra" elements in the school day instead of being integrated into the curriculum as a whole. (H. Lynn Erickson, CONCEPT-BASED CURRICULUM AND INSTRUCTION, Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press, 1998).

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The 1980s was a difficult decade for interdisciplinary learning. Extreme polarity existed between educators who supported discipline-field learning and those who favored interdisciplinary learning. Those who preferred traditional discipline-field learning viewed interdisciplinary curricula as a threat to the integrity of the disciplines. Their resistance was based largely on the fear that the interdisciplinary approach to curriculum design would replace discrete disciplines, upsetting hundreds of years of educational theory.

image By the end of the 1980s, the contentious camps of opinion began to converge. Educators gradually came to accept the fact that interdisciplinary learning could augment, instead of threaten, traditional teaching styles. Researchers such as Ackerman and Perkins (1989) 5 helped to expand educators' horizons. Ackerman and Perkins questioned whether the teaching of content inherently fostered higher-order thinking skills in students. They suggested that educators align the teaching of thinking with the teaching of content, to ensure that students developed higher-order thinking skills and discipline-based knowledge in an integrated way. As more and more educators began to experiment with interdisciplinary units, the polarity decreased. Initial attempts at interdisciplinary unit building often resulted in what came to be called the "potpourri effect," 6 instead of true interdisciplinary design. Nevertheless, these early efforts laid the groundwork for interdisciplinary learning as it exists today. (Heidi Hayes Jacobs, "The Growing Need for Interdisciplinary Course Content," INTERDISCIPLINARY CURRICULUM: DESIGN AND IMPLEMENTATION, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, ed. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1989).

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In this video clip teacher Susan Jasper explains the effect that interdisciplinary learning can have on students' perception of the discipline fields.
Two reports, the Carnegie Foundation's TURNING POINTS: PREPARING AMERICAN YOUTH FOR THE 21ST CENTURY and the National Association of Secondary School Principals' (NASSP) BREAKING RANKS: CHANGING AN AMERICAN INSTITUTION did a great deal to help interdisciplinary curricula enter the educational mainstream. These documents advocated a new interdisciplinary vision for American schools at both the middle and high school level. "The currently dominant subject-oriented approach to the curriculum leads to . . . students skimming across the surface of a vast curriculum, leaving insufficient time to gain deep, significant understandings," noted the NASSP in BREAKING RANKS. "Educators should more readily venture beyond the boundaries of their own disciplines to grow familiar and comfortable with the neighboring intellectual terrain." (National Association of Secondary School Principals, BREAKING RANKS: CHANGING AN AMERICAN INSTITUTION, Reston, Va.: National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1996, p 14).

Today, interdisciplinary learning has become a widely accepted tool for curriculum design. The concept now has enough of a history behind it that educators can move beyond preliminary sketches to design interdisciplinary units with confident, comprehensive, and bold strokes.

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Workshop: Interdisciplinary Learning in Your Classroom
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