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What is Interdisciplinary Teaching?

By M. K. McDonald
Updated: Mar 02, 2024

Interdisciplinary teaching is a method of instruction that incorporates material from more than one discipline. It involves the integration or synthesis of information from multiple disciplines to provide insights, answers, or ideas that could not be achieved by focusing on only one discipline. Interdisciplinary teaching can and does occur at all levels of education, from primary school through graduate school.

The multiple disciplines involved in interdisciplinary teaching can be integrated through a common theme, problem to solve, issue, topic, or process. The key is that a higher level of learning takes place because of the synthesis of knowledge from more than one discipline. Interdisciplinary teaching can be achieved by a single teacher drawing from multiple disciplines or through the coordination of more than one teacher in a process known as team teaching.

Interdisciplinary teaching must be distinguished from multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and cross-disciplinary teaching. Where interdisciplinary teaching hopes to generate ideas and understandings that are more comprehensive than a single discipline alone generates, multidisciplinary teaching simply hopes to bring more than one perspective to an issue, problem, or idea. In that way, multidisciplinary teaching is additive while interdisciplinary teaching is integrative.

Transdisciplinary teaching provides holistic concepts intended to go beyond disciplinary distinctions, studying the dynamics of whole systems. Marxism, world systems theory, and structuralism are a few examples of transdisciplinary approaches. Cross-disciplinary teaching examines one discipline from the perspective of another, for example, the history of science. In cross-disciplinary teaching, there is not the same level of integration or synthesis of ideas as would be found in interdisciplinary teaching.

There are many advantages associated with interdisciplinary teaching, because students learn to integrate information from different perspectives to form a more sophisticated understanding. Experts suggest that interdisciplinary teaching increases student motivation and improves learning. During interdisciplinary teaching, students learn to apply, transfer, and integrate the information more effectively than in classes that follow disciplinary lines rigidly.

That being said, experts in the field warn of potential problems, including developing a course with units that sample discipline-specific knowledge without any real integration of coursework among the disciplines. Another problem is that not all teachers are cut out to be interdisciplinary instructors. Some teachers may feel defensive when the ideas expressed or supported by their own discipline are challenged by another, leading to conflict or disagreement. Both problems can be overcome by careful course and activity design and the incorporation of both discipline-specific and interdisciplinary activities for students. Picking teachers who are open to new ideas and debate also can be critical.

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Discussion Comments
By umbra21 — On May 21, 2013

@MrsPramm - I think that says much more about the shoddy way that kids are measured than about the method of teaching. I really hate that they have to be marked and scored every week and every month and every year and none of those tests really measure their ability in the real world.

I did really well in tests when I was at school. But that was because I was good at taking tests, not because I was particularly good at any of the subjects they were testing.

I wish we'd had an interdisciplinary curriculum when I was that age.

By MrsPramm — On May 20, 2013

@bythewell - I have to agree that the practical nature of an integrated curriculum is one of the best aspects, since I firmly believe that students of all kinds should be learning things that they can actually use once they leave school.

The main problem with this, though, is that it's so difficult to fit in all the things that they are expected to learn for assessment without compromising either the curriculum or their exam scores. It's not impossible, but I feel like it's more of an art than a science.

By bythewell — On May 20, 2013

When I was learning to be a teacher, it really took me a while to get my head around the differences between interdisciplinary teaching and multidisciplinary teaching, because they sounded pretty similar to me.

But generally a multidisciplinary approach is when you've got one topic, say, frogs. And you apply that topic to lots of different subjects. So you might be painting pictures of frogs and writing stories about frogs and so forth.

A true interdisciplinary approach would be to start a project about studying frogs which requires science and maths and art skills and writing skills, all in the same project.

The best thing (to me) about interdisciplinary study is that it almost always has to be relevant and practical, because you can't really integrate a lot of subject properly without taking the learning into the real world.

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