Interdisciplinary collaboration for 21st century learning

“Within the busy, everyday lives of teachers, is it practical to overhaul the system while protecting the sanctity of their subject?”

Regardless of which level of education they work in, every teacher will have some form of specialism; be it early years, secondary mathematics, art or music. However, in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, educators are waking up to the need for a new style of learning that is more transdisciplinary and focused on the skills and competencies needed for the 21st century workplace.

The traditional approach of narrow subject specialisms is obsolete, according to Reimers (2009), and teams of teachers from across the disciplines need to work together to create a more integrated, globally-minded approach to learning.

Sounds great in theory, but within the busy, everyday lives of teachers, is it practical to overhaul the system while protecting the sanctity of their subject? How do you strengthen interdisciplinary ties in order to create a more transdisciplinary approach to teaching?

  1. Have a brief outline of the syllabus requirements ready to share at the meeting. This makes sure that everyone is on the same page, but also highlights aspects of other subject areas that could connect. For example, a mathematics unit on data handling could connect to studying fitness data in PE, or weekly weather observations in Spanish.
  2. Brainstorm how students can drive the learning. This approach will move the focus from what will be taught, to what will be learnt. This change in perspective will also incline everyone towards discussion, rather than each teacher stating what they intend to cover. Ideas for authentic learning engagements that cross subject boundaries will naturally grow from this type of discussion. Perhaps a transdisciplinary project will even emerge!
  3. Allow thinking time. We all know that our students need time to think, but so do we! Taking a few minutes to quietly jot down ideas on post-it notes before launching discussion will benefit everyone and lead to more interesting ideas. This also ensures that everyone is heard – not just the extroverts!
  4. Be open to sharing your subject. Yes, you are the specialist in your area, and yes, we want your expertise. Remember though, that others may have hidden talents. Or perhaps the perspective of someone who is not an expert will open up amazing opportunities for transdisciplinary connections.
  5. Decide which 21st century skills to focus on across all of the subjects. Less can be more here. If there are too many skills, the students will only get a shallow perspective on the versatility and adaptability of those skills. However, one or two skills being explicitly noticed, referred to and used within all subject areas will highlight those very points.
  6. Identify opportunities for sustainable development. Brainstorm ideas for how social, economic and environmental aspects can be incorporated into learning. For example, there may have been a recent humanitarian crisis that connects to the unit, or local action that students can become involved in. Connecting to this from all of the subject areas will strengthen transdisciplinary ties and help students develop global competencies.
  7. Make your communication throughout the unit intentional. Yes, we get busy and catching another teacher in the staffroom for a quick chat can be effective. However, ad hoc communication will lead to an ad hoc approach to transdisciplinary learning. It is important to know what point the other teachers are at in the learning process so that we can make explicit connections between subject areas. Students won’t necessarily make the connections themselves, so we teachers need to lead the way. For this though, we need to communicate regularly.
  8. Agree upon a method to communicate throughout the unit. The best method will depend on the school setting and number of teachers involved. Perhaps you can agree to arrive at the staff meeting five minutes early each week, or schedule a few meetings throughout the unit. However, timetables are not always easy to align, so another idea is to use a padlet (or other online system) to record the main learning each week for each subject. This could be in the form of a photo, short video or just a few sentences. Teachers can then quickly see what has been covered in the other subject areas in their own time.
  9. Find a way to share learning with the community. Sharing learning is a great way to motivate students and to highlight the transdisciplinary nature of the unit. The parents or other grades could be invited to a performance or presentation of learning. Or perhaps there are products which could be displayed museum-style or sold at a market day. Alternatively, students might create an individual digital portfolio of their favourite artefacts from across the unit (pictures, videos, audio clips, etc) to be shared. Agreeing on the method at the start of the unit will allow all teachers involved to prepare students and help them recognise how each of the subject areas is adding to the overall learning.
  10. Reflect together. At the end of the unit it is really important that everyone involved comes together to reflect on the process and identify lessons learned. What went really well, what could have been better, and what just didn’t work. Keeping a record of this for the following year is vital, especially if new teachers are likely to come on board.

Different perspectives provided by specialists from different subject areas often result in innovative ideas and encourage out-of-the-box thinking, something that is invaluable when it comes to solving the complex jigsaw of how to incorporate all aspects of the curriculum effectively.

Moreover, effective collaboration across subject areas can lead to learning that is far more transdisciplinary, while helping students to develop 21st Century skills and global competencies that will stand them in good stead for the future.

About the author: Madonna Chidwick teaches Grade 2 at Southbank International School in London.