Step-by-step guide to interdisciplinary curriculum design
In this section, we will take this step-by-step guide "from concept to classroom!" If you are willing, get out a pen and paper, focus your thoughts on an upcoming week, semester or year, and work with us to develop your own interdisciplinary unit.
We suggest that you work with one, two, or more of your colleagues in this section, but if you don't have the opportunity, you can certainly create a unit single-handedly. By the end of this section, we hope that you will have a blueprint for an interdisciplinary unit of your own.
We have provided the following template for you to print out and use.
Prologue part I: Assessing the student population
In recent years, interdisciplinary curriculum designers have begun to focus more on assessing the student population before even drafting a unit's title. If you familiarize yourself with the characteristics of your learners, you will be better able to tailor your unit to serve their needs.
The first step in planning a unit is to gather data about your students in as many ways and as great a depth as possible. The goal is a data-driven curriculum! You should look for both authentic and quantitative/statistical data to gain insight into the personal and developmental histories and needs of your students, as well as past and present performance data. If you can comprehensively assess students independently and as a group, your curriculum will be that much stronger.
As part of this process, it is a good idea to reference the state and national standards that your student population is required to meet. Standards are the primary source of guidelines on how to scaffold your activities and assessments in working toward a specific skill. Forty-nine out of fifty states have their own standards, and there are national standards on top of these to use in determining what skills your students should develop. Make a list of the standards you want to address and jot down preliminary ideas of the assessments you envision embedding in your interdisciplinary unit (for more information on standards, please see our "Resources" section).
At this point, it is a good idea to draft a statement of purpose, a rationale that describes your beliefs as a curriculum designer, and your aims for the specific population you teach. Think about what children should know and be able to do. Ask yourself, "What will the demonstrations of knowledge and skill look like in my classroom?" and use this question to frame your statement of purpose and rationale.
NOTE: There are many sources of assessment data on students. It is always available about students in school: records of their work, grades, portfolios, and past performances are just a few sources. Standardized testing data is also available, and educators are increasingly able to gain access to item analysis data for their students, another valuable source of evaluation.
Prologue part II: Assessing the setting
The second step before beginning to design your interdisciplinary unit is to assess the classroom setting. Unit design is only good if it fits the environment in which it is taught. You should consider environmental factors and their impact on your teaching when planning any type of unit, but especially when planning interdisciplinary units, as their entire conceptual focus is on making connections. Take a minute to think about the programmatic realities of your school setting. The following questions may be helpful.
- How much time do I have for this unit? (Time considerations will become important in later steps, when you have to trim your unit to fit the time frame.)
- Do I have planning time to develop an interdisciplinary unit? If I want to teach with my colleagues, do we have common planning time?
- What is my schedule like? Do I have forty-minute periods, or longer blocks that provide a fertile environment for interdisciplinary learning?
- How does my schedule interact with my colleagues' schedules? Can we combine our periods into longer blocks to further our interdisciplinary goals?
- I teach at the elementary level in a contained classroom. Is my day seamless, or do pullouts and other distractions that might disrupt our learning break it up?
The programmatic realities of your schedule might limit your efforts to team with your colleagues. A disjointed schedule may only allow you and your colleague(s) to parallel two or more disciplines. On the other hand, flexible schedules may assist your team in developing an interdisciplinary unit.
The planning process, step 1: Choose a format
You have assessed the needs of your audience and considered the environment in which you teach. Now it is time to become a content architect.
This is a good moment to step back and ask the question, "What curricular format will best serve this audience in this setting?" If "interdisciplinary" comes naturally to mind, then proceed with this blueprint!
Step 2: Draft a title and an organizing center
Your first step should be to draft a working title for your interdisciplinary unit. Think about what you might like to call it, but be sure to consider the title a draft; you will revisit it at the end of the planning process. Use engaging language so that the title will attract students' interest. The title should reflect priorities you identified in your needs assessment. It can also serve as the organizing center for the unit.
Now that you have a draft title, let's move on to selecting an organizing center for the content you want to teach. Ask yourself, "What content format am I going to use to give structure to my organizing center?" Content can have one of the following five formats, each of which generates its own unique lines of inquiry and organizing center.
||the Civil War
||Is the Civil War still going on?
||"conflict," with the Civil War as an example
||a historical work on the Civil War
||What can we do to moderate the conflict over the Confederate flag in the South?
|NOTE: Familiarity with the developmental needs of your learners, which you looked at in the Prologue section, is key in choosing an appropriate content format.
Step 3: Brainstorm using the concept wheel
Remember the concept wheel and the interdisciplinary launchpad that we explored in the Demonstration section? Now is the time to use it as a planning tool for your own interdisciplinary unit.
Draw a concept wheel with a circle at the center and an arm for each discipline that you intend to consider. Place the organizing center that you chose in Step 2 in the hub of the wheel. Begin the brainstorming process with one arm of the content wheel. Fill in the blanks in this question: "What would a/an [discipline] expert ask about [organizing center]?" As you, alone, with your planning team and with your students, ask this question for each of the disciplines on the content wheel, you will come up with answers that approach the organizing center from rich and diverse perspectives. (Heidi Hayes Jacobs, "The Interdisciplinary Concept Model: A Step-by-Step Approach for Developing Integrated Units of Study," INTERDISCIPLINARY CURRICULUM: DESIGN AND IMPLEMENTATION, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, ed. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1989, p 55-56).
If you are having trouble getting started, consider this example, taken from "Project 2061," a cooperative project started in 1985 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Project 2061's purpose is to examine what all high school graduates should know and be able to do in science, math, and technology and lay out principles for effective teaching and learning. One report explains that important themes pervade science, mathematics, and technology and appear over and over again, whether we are looking at an ancient civilization, the human body, or objects in outer space. Systems, models, constancy/change, and scale are a few examples. They transcend discipline-field boundaries and prove fruitful in explanation, in theory, in observation, and in design. These themes, and others like them in various discipline fields, can offer substantial leverage in thinking about interdisciplinary units. ("Project 2061." [Online] URL http://www.project2061.org/tools/sfaaol/chap11.htm)
|NOTE: Brainstorming tends to work best either singly or in small groups, with a time limit. A good way to brainstorm about a new unit is to integrate the brainstorming/concept wheel process at all levels of the population: yourself, the planning team, and your students.
Step 4: Develop essential questions
It is now time to develop essential questions, the structural building blocks for your interdisciplinary unit. An essential question is the sum of what you believe students should examine and know in the short time they have with you. To choose essential questions, ask yourself, "Given the time I have to spend on this unit or curriculum, what is essential for us to focus on in order that my students develop the targeted skills and assessments I envision for them?" Essential questions are a creative choice, but they are also a pragmatic conceptual commitment that frames what you will teach and what you will leave out.
For an interdisciplinary unit, you are looking for essential questions that will help students discover the natural connections among the specific discipline fields you intend to include. The best units are guided by essential questions that transfer easily among multiple disciplines, so that students can ask the same question repeated times from different perspectives to enrich their understanding of the unit's organizing center.
Take out your concept wheel and review the ideas that you, your colleagues, and your students came up with during your brainstorming sessions. These will be good fodder for drafting essential questions for the unit. Consider the following design criteria:
Do any of the questions we developed in our brainstorming sessions flow naturally from discipline to discipline?
Which questions (or series of questions) will act as stepping-stones for my students as they develop skills and move toward assessment objectives?
Which questions avoid the potpourri effect by being relevant and thought-provoking across multiple disciplines?
Dr. Joe Krajcik, a professor of science education at the University of Michigan's School of Education, recommends the following list of characteristics as a guide to use when developing essential questions (Krajcik, Joe. "Characteristics of Driving Questions." [Online] URL http://www-personal.umich.edu/~krajcik/DQ.html).
Essential questions should:
The essential questions for the unit can also come from the skills and standards you sketched out in Prologue: Assessing the Student Population. The language used in standards can often be ponderous and dogmatic. Simply rephrasing them as questions can transform them from boring commands to invitations to investigate.
- frame the organizing center
- promote higher order thinking
- be complex enough to be broken down into smaller questions
- help link concepts and principles across disciplines
- correspond to the appropriate time frame
- require materials that are readily available
- be anchored in the lives of learners
- relate to real-world problems
- be meaningful
- be interesting to learners
- be relevant to learners' lives
|The student will learn to recognize personal responsibility to the community.
||How does my community affect my life?
What do I owe my community -- or do I?
Essential questions are a means to structure a unit, but they can also be a means to teach your students how to formulate questions. Once you have decided on the essential questions for your unit, post them on the classroom wall for easy reference. This will help students understand the conceptual foundations of their learning and give them a sense of ownership of the process, especially if they helped to brainstorm some of those questions with you. (Information for this section on essential questions comes from ibid. and H. Lynn Erickson, CONCEPT-BASED CURRICULUM AND INSTRUCTION, Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press, 1998).
Step 5: Integrate skills and assessments into the essential questions
You have gathered information from your community. You have defined what content your unit will cover, chosen an organizing center, and drafted essential questions. As an interdisciplinary curriculum architect, you are poised at a critical turning point between sketch and blueprint. It is time to give your sketches substance by aligning skills and assessments with content. It is at this critical moment in the design process that you deliberately integrate the intent of the standards into your blueprint.
Take out the list of standards and assessments that you developed in Prologue: Assessing the Student Population. Lay your list of essential questions alongside it, and then go through the questions one by one. Consider which skills and assessments best fit each essential question and make a corresponding list beneath each one, using the template you downloaded at the beginning of this section. Include the specific standards you wish to build into the scaffold of your unit.
In considering assessments for your unit, process is just as important as product. You can evaluate a student's product, but you can also evaluate their skills while watching their work styles. Assessing group work is especially important these days. In your assessments, you may want to include a "process" or "ability to cooperate and work in groups" grade. Keep in mind that you can also have your students assess each other and themselves as part of the overall assessment plan for the unit.
This compilation is the blueprint for your interdisciplinary unit. It seamlessly integrates content, skills and assessments, and multiple discipline fields in the pursuit of a single organizing center. The list represents the flow among these categories and the ways in which they each inform one another.
NOTE: Assessments can take all forms, on a continuum from standardized testing to authentic assessments. Assessing students should be imagined as making a videotape, not a snapshot -- an ongoing, multilevel, and lively process that goes on continuously through a student's entire education. (Heidi Hayes Jacobs, BREAKING RANKS: CHANGING AN AMERICAN INSTITUTION, Reston, Va.: National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1996, p 56). There are processes and skills that assist students in consuming information and help them acquire knowledge. The corresponding assessments demonstrate retrieval, recall, and accuracy of skill performance. There are also processes and skills that assist students in producing their responses, insights, creations, or judgments. The corresponding assessments reflect these critical and creative skills as they are developing. At all levels of instruction, you should be sure that your assessments correspond to both consumer and producer skills and processes (Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Curriculum Designers, Inc. PowerPoint Presentation, © 2000). For more information on assessment types and standards, please see the Assessment, Evaluation, and Curriculum Redesign workshop.
Here is one teacher's assessment method in action. In this clip, Perry Montoya has the students assess themselves by rating their performance in various ways, then explains this strategy.
Step 6: Plan the day-to-day activities
It's time to outline the day-to-day activities for your unit, the steps that your students will take in acquiring the designated skills. Your goal is to develop a schedule that directly links each activity to a specific essential question. This planning process should give you and your team a clear picture of how the essential questions relate to the content; how the inquiry process serves the skills and standards to be developed; and how the process leads to the assessments themselves, which ultimately feed back into the loop.
With your concept wheel, your calendar and your integrated list of essential questions, skills and standards in hand, step back and consider the unit as a whole, set in time and context. Will you work in groups or lecture? Will you take field trips or watch videos? Will you test or quiz? Will students write an essay, a play, or a poem? Will students put on a performance or undertake a community service project? Brainstorm a list of your ideas. In designing activities, you might find these additional steps useful.
Put your lists of skills and standards and assessments into logical order, if there is one. NOTE: Some sets of skills and standards and assessments may have no "right" or "wrong" order. Order may also be dictated by the content, depending on what you choose as your organizing center.
Develop a list of the textual, multimedia, and community resources available to you.
Consider whether or not to take field trips or bring outside resources into the classroom during your unit.
Using your resource list, map out the day-to-day activities for your interdisciplinary unit. You can use a standard lesson plan format, as we have suggested in our template, or another format that you prefer. Keep in mind that each lesson plan, activity, and assessment should reference a specific essential question(s) and set of skills and standards. Depending on the length of the unit you are planning, this process may be long or short -- it is up to you and your team!
Step 7: Do the final review
The planning document for activities that you just created in Step 6, added to your list of essential questions, skills and standards, and assessments, is the final blueprint for your interdisciplinary unit. Before giving it the stamp of approval, review it one more time with your team.
The final step hearkens back to Step 2: Draft a title and an organizing center. Pull out your first sketch and take a look at the title you drafted at the beginning. Does it still work as a conceptual lens for the unit you have developed? If the answer is yes, then add it to the top of your planning document. If the answer is no, you should draft a new title -- and don't be afraid to do so again! Curriculum planning, especially interdisciplinary, may approach a final blueprint but will always remain a work in progress, because you will always be building.