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As a relatively new approach to the learning process, interdisciplinary learning is not always applicable to each grade level; secondary education students are far less likely to encounter interdisciplinary learning, simply because they have separate instructors for the great majority of their subjects. For the primary school students, however, interdisciplinary learning is becoming more and more common. Teachers using this methodological approach craft a number of thematic lessons, incorporating various types of course work into the theme, including classroom management. This allows instructors to connect multiple lessons into one over arching thematic unit, increasing the connection students make and allowing them to see the overlap in the content being studied, incorporating the lessons in their educational strategies.
Interdisciplinary Learning Example
An example of interdisciplinary learning can be using a specific time of the year to focus on a particular topic. March, for example, is women's history month. For many instructors, this is something that can only be incorporated into a history or social studies class. For an instructor that uses the interdisciplinary approach, however, multiple courses can incorporate elements of this concept, allowing students to identify the interconnected nature of their studies. The learning might start in the history of social studies class, yes, but science lessons can also focus on the contributions of leading female scientists and inventors; English or reading classes can feature strong female characters or pieces written by prominent female authors. The ultimate goal of interdisciplinary learning is to allow students to use information learned in various classes or subjects to create an informed response to a thematic question or challenge. An approach such as the aforementioned one would enable students to effectively comment on why women's history deserves its own special recognition, to identify what positive contributions women have made to our society and culture, and think critically about whether or not women are "equal" to men in our country. All of these methods are good examples of experiential Learning.
What to Look for When Reviewing Literature on Interdisciplinary Learning
In reviewing relevant literature on interdisciplinary learning, it can be noted that theoretical support for the practice based on progressivism and brain based learning is particularly of value. Basically, evidence suggests that the brain does not respond to information that is isolated, fragmented or meaningless to the learner; the greater and easier the connections made, the quicker and longer learning occurs. To this end, teachers reported that students participating in thematic study found the content more personally meaningful, important and useful, resulting in increased student interest and motivation to learn more. Students in thematic learning environments had greater engagement rates and expressed greater enjoyment in learning.
In a review of literature on interdisciplinary learning also found theoretical support for the idea that thematic instruction improves higher level thinking skills, real world problem solving and a greater transfer of learning, but little empirical research was available to prove that it was a superior method. However, in a qualitative evaluation of a specific unit, students who participate not only increased their content specific knowledge, but were better able to articulate future interests and connections between content areas. In assessing a pilot program of interdisciplinary instruction it can be noted that an increased academic achievement and parental participation was witnessed in students participating in thematic learning. In reviewing relevant research, many studies also suggests that there are benefits to academic achievement and higher level thinking skills in using the approach, although acknowledging there is some inconsistency in the literature.
Besides being difficult to study, one of the problems with interdisciplinary instruction is that it is often poorly conceived. Distorting concepts, watering them down, using impractical or difficult activities and tenuous connections in order to try to pull subjects under the same theme is inconsistent with the goals of thematic instruction, but unfortunately not uncommon. Using a single classroom teacher to exemplify the tenets of thematic instruction illustrates the difference between themes and motifs, suggesting that, while certain motifs might be fun to study, themes must incorporate meaningful content, authentic activities & student needs, evolving in response to classroom learning. Unless these elements are present, a program cannot appropriately be called thematic learning, nor should it be assessed as such.
Questions to Ask When Researching Interdisciplinary Learning
In considering this research, one must return to the question, What benefit does interdisciplinary learning offer elementary students? According to Thirteen Ed, the answer is thematic learning, when done correctly, offers a host of potential benefits.
- First is the benefit that diverse students will receive differentiated instruction that best suits their needs, interests and learning styles.
- Secondly, they stand to increase their academic achievement, social interactions and higher level thinking skills.
- Exposure to various learning styles also means exposure to a varied set of related topics often not found in traditional curriculum.
However, the benefits of thematic instruction are not conclusive, and seem to be highly dependent upon the quality and context of the thematic unit being developed and implemented. Training on appropriate methods of constructing and employing thematic learning are recommended for teachers who wish to realize the potential benefits of this approach.