Interdisciplinary education is a process in which two or more subject areas are integrated with the goal of fostering enhanced learning in each subject area. The disciplines may be related through a central theme, issue, problem, process, topic, or experience (Jacobs, 1989). Implementing an interdisciplinary program brings teachers together to create exciting learning experiences for students and to discover new ways of delivering the curriculum. The concept of interdisciplinary education acknowledges the integrity and uniqueness of each subject area, yet recognizes the interrelationships among subjects.
Interdisciplinary education is not new. Numerous examples illustrate teachers’ efforts to integrate a variety of subjects such as the language arts with mathematics, the visual arts with social studies, mathematics with science, or music with physical education. A vivid example of teaching across subject areas appears in Whitin and Wilde’s (1992) Read Any Good Math Lately? The book highlights children’s books that focus on selected mathematical concepts in an integrated way. Chard and Flockhart (2002) described a project approach used to study a local park that focused on integrating reading, writing, science, social studies, and math. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, author of Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation (1989), states that "there is no longer as much discussion among educators about whether to blend the subject areas, as about when, to what degree, and how best to do it" (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1994, pp. 1-2). Integration of the curriculum emerged from what educators knew about learning, child development, and the ways in which school prepares a child to be a productive member of the community. Children’s interest in their environment is not subject specific; it crosses many disciplines. This idea is reflected in the interdisciplinary integration approach proposed by Drake and Burns (2004). Teachers organize the curriculum around common themes, concepts, and skills across disciplines to facilitate learning. This approach, in contrast to a discipline-based approach to learning, seeks to connect the disciplines through points of attachment. It proposes to unify understanding by organizing skills and knowledge along lines of connection and convergence rather than along lines of divergence and differentiation.
Interdisciplinary learning is nourished by the content offered in multiple subject areas. The specific content of each subject is composed of skills and knowledge that constitute what is integrated. Skills are the abilities or techniques a student learns and uses to perform a movement or demonstrate a concept or idea, such as throwing, measuring, or drawing. And knowledge is defined as concepts, principles, theories, beliefs, or topics inherent to each subject area. There is no one model that describes all the ways interdisciplinary learning can be delivered. Eisner (1998) states, "What we ought to be developing in our schools is not simply a narrow array of literacy skills limited to a restrictive range of meaning systems, but a spectrum of literacies that will enable students to participate in, enjoy, and find meaning in the major forms through which meaning has been constituted" (p. 12). The act of linking or finding connections among various knowledge domains provides a deeper conceptual understanding of the features, dimensions, and characteristics common within those domains. Through interdisciplinary education, both teachers and students can experience a wide spectrum of possible relationships between diverse subject areas. As educators, the kinds of experiences we offer students influence the kinds of skills and knowledge they develop. Making those learning experiences relevant, meaningful, and transferable to future learning is the goal of interdisciplinary teaching.
Although each of Fogarty’s models is helpful, the multiplicity of choices is somewhat overwhelming. We have experimented with a variety of approaches to interdisciplinary teaching and have developed three models that function on a continuum from simple to complex (figure 1.1).
The three interdisciplinary teaching models-connected, shared, and partnership-provide approaches for integrating the skills and concepts of two or more subject areas. These models will help you clarify your intent and objectives for using interdisciplinary teaching. They are not meant to be finite models that serve every type of interdisciplinary teaching experience, but rather guides to integration with meaning and purpose. You may develop interdisciplinary learning experiences that do not fit neatly into one of the three models, and you may need to overlap or adapt the models to meet your particular situation.
The connected model uses a simple approach in which content from one subject area is used to augment or supplement the learning experience in another subject area. For example, you are teaching Mexican folk dances in a physical education lesson, and you use a map to show where the country is located as a means of connecting the topic with social studies. The shared model emphasizes the linkage of similar topics, concepts, or skills from two or more subject areas taught collaboratively with another teacher. In the folk dance example using a shared model, the concept of Mexican cultural traditions would be taught concurrently in the physical education and social studies lessons. The folk dances emphasize the cultural traditions, and the social studies lesson focuses on how traditions are part of holidays. The even more ambitious partnership model provides a strategy for complex unification of content from two or more subject areas. In relation to this example, the teachers plan and team-teach a unit on Mexico including lessons on the folk dances, cultural traditions, history, games, music, visual arts, and foods.
Another way of viewing interdisciplinary teaching-and one that vividly conveys the continuum of these models-is through imagery. The connected model is like fruit cocktail in which each fruit retains its individual identity. However, the degree of integration is limited. In the shared model, you experience an integration more characteristic of fruitcake than of fruit cocktail. The disciplines persist in recognizable chunks that make sense, but they are embedded in a pervasive and unifying batter in which raw materials are transformed. And finally, the partnership model is similar to a fruit smoothie in which the contents are blended together. Each of the models is designed to give the teacher the structure needed to link one subject area to another. In your planning process, select one or more models that offer the most appropriate means to achieve the goals you identify for the learning experience.
The Connected Model
In the connected model (figure 1.2), the skills, topics, and concepts of the physical education curriculum are the primary focus of the learning experience, and the content from another subject area is used to enhance, extend, or complement the learning experience. This model, commonly used by teachers because they are comfortable with it, allows them to independently plan, schedule, and choose the subject area content for the connection. They can schedule the lesson at a time when it fits into the learning sequence they have planned for the year; choose the subject area and specific skills, topics, and concepts they want to use; and do the planning on their own time. However, they may want to consult with a colleague about resources and accuracy of information.
This model can be used in these ways:
- When you introduce a new skill, topic, or concept, you can use the content from one subject to further explain or illustrate the skill, topic, or concept you are teaching. For example, when introducing the proper technique for a jump, you can use the scientific principle of how a spring works to illustrate the jumping action. You use imagery when you use the notion of a moving spring to make a point about jumping. You cross the bridge from imagery to interdisciplinary teaching when you present the scientific principle of how a spring works as covered in the science curriculum.
- You can use the connected model to stimulate interest in a lesson and demonstrate how the content you are teaching is relevant to the student. For example, at the beginning of a rope-jumping unit, the class reads a poem that expresses the frustrations and joys experienced when one is learning to jump rope. The teacher makes a connection between the language arts and physical education subject areas through use of the poem.
- You can use the connected model to enhance a lesson by applying a skill from another subject area. For example, students may have just learned the techniques involved in a standing long jump. They can then use the math skill of measuring to see how far they jump.
- The content of a physical education lesson can be used to supplement or reinforce skills, topics, and concepts that come up in other subject areas. A gymnastics lesson can be connected to a writing lesson when students write sentences using words emphasized in the gymnastics lesson, such as tripod, cartwheel, or straddle.
The Shared Model
A shared model is one in which two subjects are integrated through a similar skill, topic, or concept that is part of the content for both subject areas (figure 1.3). The model requires agreement between the teachers on the theme, skill, topic, or concept and on the time line for teaching. The time line can result in simultaneous presentations in the respective classrooms, or one teacher might explore a common theme, skill, topic, or concept a short time before the other teacher. The shared model may require the teachers to adjust their sequence of teaching to include the new "shared" content. The integration helps students understand how themes, skills, topics, or concepts can cut across subject areas. The students’ learning is reinforced in a meaningful way as they view teachers presenting similar ideas in different classrooms in parallel.
This model can be used in these ways:
- To help teachers take the first step in collaborating with another teacher. The teachers discuss the content they plan to teach during the year and identify common skills, topics, or concepts. Once the content has been identified, they align the sequence of teaching to deliver the common lesson or unit at a similar time. For example, in a social studies unit, students are learning about how communities work together, and the students develop a homework hot line to help other students in the school. At the same time in the physical education class, students are learning about teamwork and participate in team-building activities. The subjects share the concept of how people work together to help one another complete a task.
- To reinforce a selected theme. Several teachers may choose a broad theme for a grade level or as a schoolwide project. Teachers in all subject areas find a way to teach different aspects of the theme (figure 1.4). However, a theme may not be equally important across all subject areas. As an example, you might use the theme of change. In science, students study the changing seasons; the visual arts lessons focus on how changing your perspective while you view a sculpture changes what you see; the language arts emphasize the process of changing a piece of writing to fit different audiences; and in physical education, change is addressed as students study how the sport of basketball has changed over the last 100 years.
- To select a skill, topic, or concept from one subject area to share in both subject areas. For example, in figure 1.3b, the shared topic is occupations, which is taught in the social studies curriculum but is not typically part of the physical education curriculum. This use of a shared interdisciplinary teaching model extends the physical education curriculum by adding a new area of content.
The Partnership Model
A partnership model is defined by the equal representation of two or more subject areas in a curricular effort. The skills, topics, and concepts of two or more subject areas are blended together so that learning takes place simultaneously in all subject areas. Teaching is collaborative and is often accomplished through a team-teaching model. The teachers teach together at the same time in the same classroom, collaborating to deliver an agreed-on content within the curricular areas. This model takes considerable planning, a willingness to seek common areas, the identification of a time block for teaching in this manner, and a significant effort to identify links between specific curricular areas. It often leads to uncharted territory, challenging teachers to view their curriculum from a new and different perspective. The result is a curriculum in which students gain a better understanding of the interconnectedness of all subject areas (figure 1.5).
This model can be used in these ways:
- To demonstrate the value of understanding the relationship between two or more subject areas that would have otherwise been taught as discrete subject areas. Students have an opportunity to apply their knowledge in a different context, thus demonstrating their complete understanding of what they have learned. The application of the mathematical concept of fractions infused with the teaching of the correct mechanics for badminton strokes is one example. A teacher could describe the backswing of the stroke as a fraction of a circle or determine the number of successful serves using fractions. Before the learning experience, the two teachers share their content with each other and together create a new way to teach the targeted content.
- To give teachers the opportunity to restructure or refocus curriculum to provide students with the chance to learn through a new lens. For example, when teaching patterns, the physical education and music teachers create a joint learning experience to enhance the children’s understanding of patterns. The teachers select the ABA structure or ternary form as the focus of the experience. The students create movement sequences, such as twist, stretch, twist, and compose music in the ABA form to accompany their movement sequence.
- To facilitate an integrated event. This type of event usually involves total immersion by all faculty, students, and staff of the school. For example, the school decides to celebrate a particular event and focuses all activities around a theme. The entire school community participates through activities, food, costumes, and customs associated with the event and coordinates learning experiences representing various subject areas. Faculty and staff work with many different students in a variety of activities.