Initial Publication Date: September 2, 2010

Challenges Facing Interdisciplinary Teachers

Educators who successfully introduce interdisciplinary forms of instruction into the classes they lead must overcome a number of hurdles that can be surmounted by interested educators. Those who make the transition must:

  • Become sufficiently knowledgeable in relevant related disciplines to be able to comfortably introduce and guide an interdisciplinary investigation.
  • Find the appropriate level of interdisciplinary complexity. For most students, integrating introductory level concepts from multiple disciplines will add sufficient depth and breadth to their understanding.
  • Convince students that the additional costs of thinking in an interdisciplinary fashion are worth it.
  • Avoid polarity which occurs when instructors in an interdisciplinary setting become territorial about their content area and its role in the analysis because they are threatened by another discipline's viewpoint.
  • Offer a balanced examination of theoretical and methodological assumptions underlying each discipline that is part of the interdisciplinary examination (Cowan et al. 1997).
  • Promote the synthesis of ideas from a variety of disciplines leading to an integrated form of analysis. Acquiring the ability to synthesize, a higher-order cognitive skill in Bloom's (1956) taxonomy and a key objective of interdisciplinary teaching is taxing for students. Moreover, helping students learn to synthesize is the greatest challenge for an educator to navigate or overcome on the path to interdisciplinary examination of topics. Learn more about Blooms Taxonomy and it's link to synthesis and interdisciplinary teaching.
    • A confounding issue is that there are often fundamental contradictions between disciplines regarding methodology and assumptions leading to divergent insights and predictions. Thus, although an interdisciplinary examination is conducted in a systematic fashion, it is often difficult to generate a coherent framework of analysis which is ideal. However, reflection on why a cohesive framework is elusive is a vital part of interdisciplinary thinking and should be embraced when appropriate. For greater detail on a method to approach the challenge of integration see interdisciplinarity and synthesis - one method

Overcoming the Challenges Facing Interdisciplinary Teachers

There are a number of strategies and actions an instructor can adopt to facilitate a smooth transition to offering interdisciplinary learning opportunities.

  • Become sufficiently knowledgeable- read introductory level material on topics to be covered from related disciplines. Talk to colleagues in related disciplines about concepts you will discuss in class to instill confidence that you have a clear understanding of the fundamental ideas.
  • Find the appropriate level of interdisciplinary complexity - begin with a topic where basic principles from another discipline are sufficient to offer a viable interdisciplinary examination of the topic under consideration. If students are comfortable with this level of analysis, selectively introduce one or more desired additional concepts, and monitor student understanding.
  • Convince students that interdisciplinarity is worthwhile -during class conversation and in assignments ask students to identify insight they would have missed if they had engaged in a discipline specific investigation of the topic and if the gain is substantial enough to warrant an interdisciplinary examination.
  • Avoid polarity - incorporate insights from other disciplines that you believe are well suited to enrich student understanding of the topic so that students clearly see that the instructor believes this form of integration is valuable.
  • Offer a balanced examination - make a conscious effort to present insights from each discipline in a non-hierarchical manner, with the likely exception of choosing one discipline (usually that of the instructor) as the base from which to begin the analysis.
  • Promote the synthesis of ideas - after modeling interdisciplinary thinking for students, especially how to synthesize and integrate insights from multiple disciplines, it is essential that the instructor ask the students to attempt this activity when new problems are addressed.
    • Do not intervene too quickly, let the students grapple with how to integrate and offer a range of ideas and approaches to reach this end. Consider adopting small group activities to allow students to engage in cooperative learning to become more proficient in integrating insights from a host of disciplines.
    • In small class settings ask students open-ended questions that require them to broach synthesis and integration. Moreover, ask them to identify areas of conflict and cohesion across disciplines. Do not be afraid to follow reasonable pathways, if they turn out to be barren that is part of the way in which students will learn how to integrate.
    • Encourage students to be creative and take risks as they wrestle with the challenges of being more inclusive thinkers.
    • Summarize often, always beginning with the notions that each discipline in isolation would offer. Then identify the potential gains from synthesis and integration, and clarify the options on the table to foster integration.

Additional Tips for New Interdisciplinary Teachers

  • Start with a topic in which you are already highly knowledgeable about how other disciplines address the issue and have a clear sense of how to synthesize and integrate. This will build your confidence and allow you to more effectively gauge how students respond.
  • Allocate sufficient time for interdisciplinary investigations if the methodology is being used for a portion of the class. Be flexible or prepared to cover more or less material in a discipline specific manner based on how the interdisciplinary exercise progresses.

Costs of Teaching in an Interdisciplinary Fashion

Educators considering adopting an interdisciplinary approach to teaching face both time costs associated with preparation and psychological costs generated by stresses brought about by the uncertainty common to this form of instruction. For additional information on the costs of interdisciplinary instruction see interdisciplinary costs