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How To Launch an Interdisciplinary Lesson

Let your students in on it.

Getting students to think about the connections between subjects

Interdisciplinary thinking is best done in a space of freedom and joy, which makes it a great summer activity. Whatever you find yourself doing this summer, take a moment to reflect on how it draws from various disciplines.

Disciplinary boundaries are arbitrary. We draw distinctions among subjects in order to organize our approach, to identify objectives, and to define success. But there are other ways to engage. This article motivates an interdiciplinary approach and then adds something new to the conversation: how to get students bought into it.

The relationship between high school subjects and real-world value, showing their interplay
Relationship between high school subjects and real-world value

A typical American high schooler’s course schedule includes math, phys-ed, history, English, science, and art. We could instead enroll our high school students in these classes: “the world and how we treat it,” “being a professional,” “digital society,” “finance,” “the good life,” and “politics and bureaucracy.” This alternative set of courses is just as deep and just as rigorous, and it would certainly be more applicable to the real world. And if these were the courses a student took, then their traditional high school subjects would all still be covered in their entirety. (I’m happy to discuss how, if you ask in the comments.) The difference here is structure, not content.

Interdisciplinary instruction is a teaching tool that helps students glimpse these other possible worlds, worlds where their knowledge acquisition brings forth deeper meaning. It would take years of concerted policy advocacy to fully implement this flexibility in our actual classrooms. Currently, the laws around high school graduation requirements and teacher certification areas don’t permit this curricular freedom. In the meantime, teachers can work together to help students realize that the school subjects we teach are not distinct: they can and must play together.

In a recent Edutopia article, Even and Race discuss practical strategies for implementing interdisciplinary lessons. I agree with all their points, and I encourage teachers who are new to interdisciplinary instruction to take a look at the Edutopia article. Throughout the school year, whether or not I’m currently in the middle of an explicitly interdisciplinary unit, I regularly ask the teachers on my grade-level team what they’re teaching. My intention is to more ably encourage my students to explicitly make cross-course connections. Sometimes our school’s teaching teams deliberately co-plan an interdisciplinary unit; we begin with a natural point of connection and then design shared lessons, projects, and assessments.

The first time I taught an interdisciplinary unit, it failed gloriously. I was building a brand new physics first (9th-grade physics) program. Physics and algebra both rely on the same mathematical toolkit, and I thought we could help students comprehend the zeros of a quadratic function by studying physical parabolas traced through space: the zeroes of this real-world parabola are the horizontal locations where a projectile is launched and where it lands.

Bulletin board of student work from my (failed) interdisciplinary projectile motion lesson
Bulletin board from my (failed) first-ever interdisciplinary lesson in 2018

It would have been difficult for an outsider to detect that the interdisciplinary lesson failed. Students watched videos of projectiles and traced the path to see that it appeared parabolic. Students worked together to run computer simulations, to calculate expected landing locations, and to compare their values with the computer simulation’s prediction. Students used the same formulas, notation, and academic vocabulary in my physics class that they were using in algebra. My co-teacher and I constructed a beautiful bulletin board (see image) to celebrate our students’ work.

So how do I know it failed? Here’s my evidence: student understanding of quadratic equations in algebra did not improve after this interdisciplinary physics lesson. When surveyed after the lesson, students still said that physics and algebra were unrelated subjects. From talking with students, I could tell that they still believed algebra had no connection to the real world. I was so proud of having created this interdisciplinary project, but most of my students didn’t even realize it was supposed to be interdisciplinary.

This past year, I co-designed and implemented two interdisciplinary lessons. One was with the English department on Covid misinformation, and one was with the Algebra department on piecewise functions. These lessons went much better because this time the students knew what we were doing and why. Here’s how we achieved it.

Venn diagrams showing varying degrees of overlap between Taco Bell and other food vendors
Conversation launch before students defined the term “interdisciplinary”

Before launching our interdisciplinary lesson, I asked my students to tell the story implicit in the three Venn diagrams above. Students interpreted the image as meaning that Taco Bell is very similar to Burger King, has some shared features with Olive Garden, and has the least in common with Shop Rite. Although they hadn’t previously seen Venn diagram overlap used this way, it was fairly intuitive. Students agreed that these three diagrams accurately represented the conceptual relationships, and they came up with their own analogous examples. Such as: how would you draw the overlap between (1) swimming and boating, (2) swimming and dancing, and (3) swimming and basketball? And why would you draw the circles that way?

We need not limit ourselves to two circles at a time. We could show the relationships among Taco Bell, Burger King, Olive Garden, and Shop Rite all together in a single image. I asked students to construct their own representations, and we discussed the nuances and trade-offs of circle placement.

Taco Bell, Burger King, Olive Garden, and Shop Rite overlap in one image.
Food vendor Venn diagram, with all four in one image

We generated something like the diagram to the left. Taco Bell and Burger King are the most similar to each other because they are fast-food restaurants. I placed Olive Garden closer to Burger King than to Taco Bell because I think their menus are more similar, but it’s debatable. Shop Rite has the least overlap with the others because it sells mostly groceries and very little prepared food. (An aside: when writing this article, I came across an article by Jensenius, which also uses the amount of Venn diagram overlap as a tool for illustrating connections among disciplines. I highly recommend taking a look.) How would you make an analogous diagram for swimming, boating, dancing, and basketball?

Following this conversation, my students made the translation to interdisciplinary coursework. I asked them to draw their own overlapping circles for the subjects that they study in school. We started with pairs of classes: how much overlap is there between physics and history? Physics and art? etc. Students generally said the subjects were pretty different. I told them that the subjects are deeply interrelated, and they only feel disconnected because of how we teach them.

Teachers (myself included) must help students discover the myriad ways in which disciplines come together for a meaningful life. We are constrained by curricular requirements and scheduling structures that presume all subjects are distinct, but we must help students see beyond. In every career and calling I know about, success requires us to draw from and integrate skills and knowledge from multiple disciplines. Our students need these experiences as they prepare to wholly inhabit the adult world.

Speaking interdisciplinarily must become a habit. If we truly want students to see a bigger picture beyond the specific subject we teach, then it has to be a mindset we embody daily. Whenever a part of my lesson connects to something in another discipline, I try to make it explicit. Whenever a student makes a connection from our class to another, I celebrate it publicly. Before the pandemic, our 9th-grade team had a bulletin board going where students could post their own examples of connections between disciplines, and we built out a web of student-generated curricular connections in our school hallway.

When I surveyed students after our interdisciplinary units this past year, they had begun to see how subjects in school are connected to each other and to a broader goal. It meant something.

A huge thank-you to all the teachers with whom I worked on the interdisciplinary units mentioned above, in particular Suzy Hanafy, Katie Kantz-Durand, Edwin Chen, and Resha Daisley.

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Elissa Levy

Elissa Levy

I teach physics and computer science in East Harlem, New York. I aim to engage.