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Interdisciplinary Learning: Reaching Beyond the Buzz

Interdisciplinary learning provides opportunities for deeper student learning and greater teacher collaboration.

Ask various leaders in the education space what the term “interdisciplinary learning” means, and you’ll get a variety of answers. Like “personalized learning,” “blended learning,” and “social and emotional learning,” this subset of pedagogical thinking has become more of an umbrella of ideas rather than a discrete practice. In general, interdisciplinary learning is a methodology in which separate subject areas are combined into dynamic, comprehensive instructional opportunities for students. Different disciplines, content areas, and critical thinking skills are all elements of strong interdisciplinary pedagogy. When done well, this kind of teaching and learning can be incredibly powerful1 in helping students apply theoretical knowledge to real-world problems, and to foster meaningful collaboration among educators in different academic silos.

While not a new concept, many schools are looking at interdisciplinary learning as a catalyst for innovation and collaboration. This is important, as a successful program requires systemic buy-in from all levels to make it work. Teachers need training and time to collaborate and plan together. Students need the time it takes to learn new skills and then apply them to well-constructed problems or multi-phase problems to solve. Usually, materials are needed, such as engineering equipment, or specialized software. Other times, classes may need laboratory space or a visit to a location off-campus, such as an astronomical observatory, a museum, or even a factory. What’s most important is that students are having experiences that transcend traditional divisions between academic subjects and can engage in results-oriented projects that require them to use what they’ve learned.

The student experience

In my experience as an educator, the best description of interdisciplinary learning is that it is learning in context. From the outset, students are steeped in the “why are we learning this?” of any lesson. Skills and content are taught as they are needed in the bigger process of solving problems. Students are often working together in groups to experience the dynamism2 of collaboration, and to support one another’s learning just as they, themselves, are supported. Students place themselves at the center of some of our society’s biggest problems and work through their own solutions. The pandemic has been an example of just such a problem. To address this, just imagine how many systems needed to be aligned to help us weather the worst of COVID: our medical professionals were treating people in real-time, while epidemiologists and virologists were trying to figure out the cause and treatment of the disease. Government agencies had to mobilize teams of contact tracers, source adequate PPE supplies, and put protocols in place to keep people safe. Statisticians were gaming out how to predict spread and mitigate the effects of the outbreak on densely populated cities. The creation and scientific analyses of new vaccines were followed by a massive rollout of testing and administration.

For students, they can see that unlike almost all of our schools, subject areas are not discrete, separate, and often unrelated. Math for math class, history for Social Studies, and biology in science. In the real world, all of these subjects come together and overlap in ways that constantly demand critical thinking. We need our classrooms to mirror this reality. The Maine Department of Education has this concise explanation3 of how, and why, students should experience this type of instruction:

“Shifting instruction and assessment from siloed content area learning to interdisciplinary will provide educators and students unique opportunities to explore learning that is both relevant and interesting to them―cultivating an environment that excites learners and sparks continuous curiosity.”

In my own work, I’ve tried to bring this sort of learning to my students in connection with my professional experience as an archaeologist. My academic background is as an ancient historian and archaeologist, specializing in the areas of Greece and Italy. I’ve participated in several digs and traveled the Mediterranean extensively to visit ancient sites. While teaching my students about the ancient Greeks and Romans, I emphasize two things above all: how we know what we know, and why this knowledge is important to know now. One of the easiest ways to open the conversation has been to ask students how we can compare those people of the ancient past with our modern communities of the present. This is exactly the kind of work that professional historians, archaeologists, museum curators, and others in the field are doing. It requires a team effort of several disciplines to bring their skills and research to the table. A comprehensive picture can only come together in this format.

In essence, a true interdisciplinary classroom is founded on the shared skills that undergird all of our subject areas: critical thinking, written communication and reading comprehension, collaboration, creative problem-solving, appreciating diverse perspectives, and analyzing the reliability of information sources. (An extensive list of Commonly Identified Best Practices in Interdisciplinary Studies has been published as an appendix by William H. Newall in his research on Interdisciplinary Theory.)4

The interdisciplinary classroom brings in aspects of discrete subjects not as distinct elements, but as an integrated whole―one that mirrors the complexity of the world we’re teaching our students to navigate. But, after all of this, you might be thinking that it sounds like a challenging task to orchestrate an interdisciplinary classroom. You’re right―it’s hard work.

The work of interdisciplinary teachers

In my Social Studies classroom, I worked to foster students’ understanding of the people of the ancient past―what we know about them and what we still don’t know, how we’ve discovered what we know, and why it matters. Over time, my view of what my classroom should look like changed. When I started teaching, I was focused on a curriculum that emphasized content: facts, dates, vocabulary terms, and what felt like a Trivial Pursuit version of history. As a historian and archaeologist myself, I knew this wasn’t the reality of the work being done by professionals in the field. Knowing where to find information was more important than memorizing everything. Looking critically at various sources of information and synthesizing a cohesive picture of the past was more important than making guesses. Even the style of written and oral communication necessary to share what you’ve discovered and field smart questions from your peers was more important than just declaratively stating a fact.

Even more recently, I was experiencing the evolution of the digital Humanities—the intersection of traditional fields like history, philology, and archaeology with emerging technology in computer science, 3D imagery, laser scanning, drone surveying, and cutting-edge scientific analysis. I saw the power of all of these tools coming together to make history come alive and give us new insights into the lives of the people of the ancient past! I wanted my students to experience that same wide-eyed wonder and the deep learning that flowed from it.

One thing that any teacher who has ever tried to incorporate even elements of interdisciplinary learning knows for sure: it takes so much planning. To do it well, teachers need time together―not always an easy ask for schools when schedules are often structured to preclude significant opportunities for common planning time. Teachers also need libraries of well-curated source material. Instead of re-inventing or adapting existing materials, teachers should have access to resources that are proven to support students’ learning in an interdisciplinary classroom. Accessing this kind of material would save teachers time by frontloading their planning with great tools that already exist so they can work together to design dynamic lessons for their students. As I’ve written previously, the “Google-sourcing” of instructional materials5 can be a time sink that produces a lot of not-great results.

Another challenge of the interdisciplinary classroom that teachers face is that the goals and objectives are not always as linear as they are in existing curriculum frameworks. In the way we structure subjects now, we have discrete sets of state learning standards, e.g., math frameworks for Math, history for Social Studies, and biology for Science. By definition, an interdisciplinary classroom transcends these and requires teachers to pull from multiple strands to create their objectives. We can help teachers by giving them standards-aligned content that is specifically aligned to standards in multiple subject areas. For example, my lesson on how to design an archaeological excavation included elements of history (artifact analysis), geometry (delineating the grid system to determine trenches), and science (analysis of physical properties, critical thinking, and the scientific method). How great would it be if we could give teachers who wanted to bring interdisciplinary instruction to their classroom a big head-start?

Even if the creation and implementation of truly interdisciplinary units might seem daunting, there are ways to incorporate smaller ‘moments’ of this approach within the existing school model. I love the advice Allyson Even and Carleigh Race, teachers who worked together and wrote about their experience6 creating interdisciplinary opportunities for their students. They recommend looking for natural overlap among subject areas, and if a monthslong interdisciplinary unit isn’t feasible:

“Experiment with micro-units—a sequence of three to five lessons of integrated learning that can stand alone in the school year or nest into a larger unit sequence.”

These “micro-units” are great entry points for teachers wanting to try interdisciplinary learning. Even better, if we can offer teachers high-quality instructional materials to foster this kind of experimentation, teachers are more likely to take a risk, and grow more comfortable with this way of teaching. Ultimately, students benefit when we empower teachers to innovate and give them the resources they need to do just that.

. . . . . . .

1Issues in Science and Technology, Vol XXXV, No. 2, Winter 2019, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Arizona State University: Bear, Ashley; Skorton, David: “The World Needs Students with Indisciplinary Education” www.issues.org

2TEDxYouth@SHC 2019, Lim, Theresa: “Educating for the Future: The Power of Interdisciplinary Spaces

3Maine Department of Education: “What is Interdisciplinary Instruction?www.maine.gov

4Issues in Interdisciplinary Studies, No. 31, 2013: Newall, William H., Miami University, Oxford, Ohio: “The State of the Field: Interdisciplinary Theory,” Appendix: Commonly Identified Best Practices in Interdisciplinary Studies

5Learning Explorer Blog, December 12, 2022: Guerriero, Stephen Anthony: “What’s Wrong With Teachers Google-sourcing Instructional Materials”

6Edutopia, June 21, 2021: Even, Allyson; Race, Carleigh: “More Than a Buzzword: Making Interdisciplinary Learning a Reality

. . . . . . .

Stephen Anthony Guerriero, M.A., M.Ed., is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. He was a twenty-year Social Studies educator at the middle and elementary levels with Needham Public Schools and previously Dedham Public Schools (Massachusetts). Stephen received a Master of Arts in Ancient Greek and Roman Studies at Brandeis University; a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College; and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations, Italian Studies, and Latin at Boston University. Stephen is a contributing writer for Learning Explorer; his opinions are his own.

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