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Why Teach with an Interdisciplinary Approach?

Interdisciplinary Teaching Increases Student Learning

Engaging students and helping them to develop knowledge, insights, problem solving skills, self-confidence, self-efficacy, and a passion for learning are common goals that educators bring to the classroom, and interdisciplinary instruction and exploration promotes realization of these objectives. Repko (2009) asserts that interdisciplinary instruction fosters advances in cognitive ability and other educational researchers (Kavaloski 1979, Newell 1990, Field et al. 1994, Vess 2009) have identified a number of distinct educational benefits of interdisciplinary learning including gains in the ability to:

Interdisciplinary Teaching Helps Students Uncover Preconceptions or Recognize Bias

Interdisciplinary instruction allows us to understand our preconceptions of "what is" and the framework by which we arrived at "what is." It also fits with recent advances in learning science about how to foster learning when students bring powerful pre-existing ideas with them to the learning process. Bransford (2000) drawing on scientific research findings from the fields of neuroscience, cognitive science, social psychology, and human development asserts that interdisciplinary forms of instruction,

The Gain - when students put aside their pre-existing notions they position themselves to learn facts more readily and are more open to adopting a range of methodologies that promote understanding. Teachers can thus spend more time exploring issues with them that promote significant learning (for information on significant learning see the section below entitled Interdisciplinary Teaching Promotes Significant Learning).

Interdisciplinary Teaching Helps Advance Critical Thinking and Cognitive Development

Interdisciplinary instruction helps students develop their cognitive abilities - brain-based skills and mental processes that are needed to carry out tasks. Allen Repko (2009) identifies a number of cognitive attributes that interdisciplinary learning fosters. He asserts, that interdisciplinary learning helps students,

The Gain - students develop an appreciation of the differences between disciplines on how to approach a problem and their discipline specific rules regarding viable evidence. This leads to a broader understanding of the issue under investigation.
The Gain - each of these forms of knowledge are needed to solve complex problems. Thus, as students enhance their knowledge formation capacity, teachers can engage them in conversations dealing with more complex issues.
The Gain - a host of disciplines attempt to understand the same or related problems, but each disciplines adopts different mechanisms of analysis and approaches to evaluating the viability of their insights. Obtaining a clear understanding of problems with roots in multiple disciplines requires the capacity to integrate ideas and this skill is advanced by interdisciplinary learning.

Interdisciplinary Teaching Helps Students Tolerate or Embrace Ambiguity

The Gain - interdisciplinary instruction advances the notion that ambiguity results from alternative perspectives on issues that are advanced by different disciplines rather than a shortcoming of a particular discipline. Thus, students acquire a better understanding of the complexity of problems of interest and the associated challenges of solving them.

Interdisciplinary Teaching Helps Students Appreciate Ethical Dimensions of Concerns

The Gain - interdisciplinary instruction promotes the integration of ideas from relevant disciplines - including moral philosophy when exploring an issue so ethical considerations are often part of an interdisciplinary examination of an issue. This is useful since or perspectives on a question, and policy considerations are likely to include discussion and valuation of ethical factors.

Interdisciplinary Teaching Promotes Significant Learning

Significant Learning (Fink, 2003) takes place when meaningful and lasting classroom experiences occur. According to Fink when teachers impart students with a range of skills, and insights about the educational process that students will see as meaningful and salient to them they promote student engagement in the learning process and greater learning occurs. Fink identifies 6 elements of the educational process that lead to significant learning and each of these is a common feature of interdisciplinary forms of instruction.

The Gain - Interdisciplinary instruction fosters the acquisition of foundational knowledge, promotes integration of ideas from multiple disciplines and provides insight on how to apply knowledge all of which advance a students understanding of how to learn. Moreover, students are encouraged to account for the contribution of disciplines that highlight the roles of caring and social interaction when analyzing problems. Thus, the very structure of interdisciplinary learning is consistent with the core features of significant learning, so students are expected to find interdisciplinary education engaging and thus an effective way to advance their understanding of topics under investigation.


Fink Taxonomy of Significant Learning

Interdisciplinary Teaching Promotes Understanding when Students Learn in Heterogeneous Ways

The Gain - Interdisciplinary instruction opens academic conversations to ideas from a range of disciplines so all students should be able to relate and contribute to the dialogue. Thus, the likelihood of connecting with the full array of the students in the classroom is enhanced by interdisciplinary learning.

The World is Interdisciplinary

The Gain - students recognize that there are a variety of perspectives what can be brought to bear in an effort to understand most issues. Thus, they find interdisciplinary forms of exploration more compelling, which promotes engagement and learning.

In summary, the emerging popularity of interdisciplinary teaching is grounded in the student gains that various researchers have identified.

Interdisciplinary Teaching is Not Too Costly and It's Rewarding

Moving from a disciplinary oriented form of teaching to being an interdisciplinary educator is not too costly for four reasons. First, most educators are familiar with the methodologies and empirical practices of related disciplines so acquiring the necessary cross disciplinary knowledge to become an interdisciplinary teacher will not be overly stressful or time consuming. Second, most educators are familiar with task modeling - an instructional strategy that promotes learning through observation - which is fundamental to interdisciplinary teaching since most students are unfamiliar with interdisciplinary approaches to learning, so instructors do not have to learn an entirely new form of pedagogy. Third, synthesis of insights from across disciplines, the most demanding element of interdisciplinary teaching, is an activity that most scholar-educators have engaged in previously or can learn to do with modest effort. Finally, instructors can determine the share of the course that is interdisciplinary, so they insert into their course the level of interdisciplinarity that is ideal for them given their experience with this form of teaching and the nature of the course they are leading.





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