Interdisciplinary Approaches to Teaching

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: September 2, 2010

Developed by Arthur H. Goldsmith, Washington and Lee University. Assistance provided by: Darrick Hamilton, Milano-The New School for Management and Urban Policy, Karen Hornsby, North Carolina A&T State University, and Dave Wells, Arizona State University.

What is Interdisciplinary Teaching?

Interdisciplinary instruction entails the use and integration of methods and analytical frameworks from more than one academic discipline to examine a theme, issue, question or topic. The hallmark of interdisciplinary education is integration of notions and guiding principles from multiple disciplines to systematically form a more complete, and hopefully coherent, framework of analysis that offers a richer understanding of the issue under examination.

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Why Teach In an Interdisciplinary Fashion?

An emerging viewpoint in higher education emphasizes that a thorough understanding of today's real life problems requires interdisciplinary reflection. For instance, when society and policymakers address the question of whether to raise the minimum wage they will certainly draw from economics, theories of social justice and social psychology. Clearly, insight from a single disciplinary framework is not sufficient to help resolve such a complex issue. Students who are regularly exposed to classroom conversations and assignments that tackle real-world problems in an interdisciplinary fashion; engage in significant learning, realize cognitive gains, and are better positioned to understand challenging problems and to frame viable solutions.

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How to Teach in an Interdisciplinary Manner

Educators must demonstrate or model for students how to approach issues in an interdisciplinary fashion because discipline based learning is the standard teaching structure so they will be unfamiliar with how to synthesize or integrate insights from a range of disciplines into an inclusive framework of analysis. The most challenging part of interdisciplinary instruction is moving beyond examination of an issue from the lens of multiple disciplines, to the synthesis and integration of insights into a more inclusive framework of analysis. A six step procedure for how to effectively integrate idea from multiple disciplines is provided in the section of the module dedicated to How to engage in interdisciplinary Teaching along with teaching tips, insights on how to reduce the costs of becoming an interdisciplinary teacher, and ideas on what types of classes are best suited for interdisciplinary instruction.

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Examples of ways to use interdisciplinary approaches to teaching in your classroom are available.

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  • Bibliography of useful books and articles about interdisciplinary approaches to teaching.
  • Web Resources which provide additional information on interdisciplinary approaches to teaching.

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