Why Teach with an Interdisciplinary Approach?

Initial Publication Date: September 2, 2010

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:
  • Recognize bias
  • Think critically
  • Tolerate ambiguity
  • Acknowledge and appreciate ethical concerns

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,

  • Help students overcome a tendency to maintain preconceived notions. This is accomplished by recognizing the source of the preexisting understandings they arrive with, and by introducing students to subject matter from a variety of perspectives that challenge their existing notions. Interdisciplinary instruction accomplishes this goal in two ways. First, by helping students identifying insights from a range of disciplines that contribute to an understanding of the issue under consideration. Second, by helping students develop the ability to integrate concepts and ideas from these disciplines into a broader conceptual framework of analysis.

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,

  • Acquire Perspective-Taking Techniques (Baloche, Hynes, and Berger 1996) - the capacity to understand multiple viewpoints on a given topic.
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.
  • Develop Structural Knowledge - both declarative knowledge (factual information) and procedural knowledge (process-based information).
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.
  • Integrate conflicting insights from alternative disciplines.
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

  • Interdisciplinary instruction helps students understand why conflicts commonly arise over; the causes and consequences of an issue and, the ideal way for policy to address the issue of concern. When learning is confined to a single disciplinary perspective ambiguity is often considered either a shortcoming of the analytical framework or evidence that assumptions need to be adopted to provide a clear prediction.
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

  • Interdisciplinary instruction helps students understand that there are ethical dimensions to most issues of concern. Ethical considerations entail moral concerns which means accounting for perceptions of right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, and the provision of justice. Many disciplines steer clear of such subjective phenomena and confine their analysis to more objective factors in an effort to be scientific.
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.

  • Foundational Knowledge – acquiring information and understanding ideas
  • Application – acquiring an understanding of how and when to use skills
  • Integration – the capacity to connect ideas
  • Human Dimension - recognition of the social and personal implications of issues
  • Caring – acknowledgment of the role of feelings, interests, and values
  • Learning How-to-Learn – obtaining insights into the process of learning

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.

Interdisciplinary Teaching Promotes Understanding when Students Learn in Heterogeneous Ways

  • Prominent psychologist Howard Gardner (1983) established that students bring multiple forms of intelligence to the learning process. As a result, given that students are heterogeneous in their learning styles and have diverse backgrounds, interests, experiences, talents, and values, he believes that drawing on a broad array of frameworks and methodologies will enhance student engagement, and thus learning.
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

  • According to The National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE 1995) "educational experiences are more authentic and of greater value to students when the curricula reflects real life, which is multi-faceted rather than being compartmentalized into neat subject-matter packages." In their view, real-world problems are complex, so no single discipline can adequately describe and resolve these issues. Therefore, they are not surprised that interdisciplinary forms of learning are prevalent and growing in abundance and stature throughout higher education (Edwards, 1996, Gaff & Ratclif, 1997, and Liein, 1996).

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.