Interdisciplinary Transformations

Intuitively, we know that some of the greatest learning opportunities come when pieces of the puzzle come together, when students can make connections across disciplines or between lessons. These opportunities generate a learning energy that is exciting for the teacher and for the student, and they often lead to the epiphanies that are transformative in a student’s learning journey.

We also know that students will be held accountable in life for being able to connect the dots between ideas and content. Once they are in the “real world”, rarely will our students be asked to answer a discrete question that is limited to only one subject or skill. It is assumed that they can pull from a range of ideas, interpreting and adapting on the fly. There are very few careers a student can pursue to avoid these necessary skill sets.

While we know these things instinctively, we still structure our schools primarily around the Carnegie Unit, a measure implemented in 1906 to ensure students spend appropriate time in a range of specific subjects. These compartments of learning have shaped many core elements of how we set up our school schedules, academic departments, and graduation requirements. This regimentation has been unintentionally limiting, forcing teachers into silos, fairly narrowly focused on their relatively small slice of the learning pie.

Colleges and universities began the journey away from learning in silos to a more interdisciplinary, critical thinking model earlier than K-12 education. Pressured by companies yearning for college graduates able to make more complex, sophisticated leaps, higher education saw an opportunity to shift focus to incorporate a new take on traditional liberal arts education. Companies are no longer fixated solely on GRE scores and content area knowledge, but often prioritize examples of creativity and innovation. A recent Harvard Business Journal article emphasizes the need for building creativity as a native trait in employees.

Higher education is doing its part to answer the call for a more creative, innovative, adaptable student. Philadelphia University, for example, has modeled its entire program around what it calls Nexus Learning- “active and collaborative learning that is connected to real world and infused with the liberal arts.” (http://www.philau.edu/about/).  Stephen Spinelli, President of Philadelphia University, has brought his entrepreneurial vision to bear in important ways, identifying an opportunity to define a college program around real world skills while still being strongly anchored in traditional college courses. The school has built its facilities, faculty professional development, and marketing around this central vision of Nexus Learning.

Drexel University has been moving towards this model of in-the-field skill development for some time. Founded in 1909, the co-operative education program at Drexel immerses its students in internships and real work experiences while they are students, the idea being that students will graduate with a legitimate resume and a wealth of life experiences to bring to their first job.

As colleges and universities pave the way for this shift in thinking about our silos, K-12 education is working to catch up. Increasingly, we are seeking opportunities to foster interdisciplinary connections, to push students through a skills based program, and to shift teaching methods to incorporate more experiential, interactive opportunities that more closely resemble what their learning environments will look like outside of school.

While there is typically a lot of buy-in philosophically for interdisciplinary studies from teachers, students, and parents alike, there are very real, practical roadblocks to fully embracing an interdisciplinary model. Top college preparatory schools like Episcopal face the reality that our students need to complete a series of very challenging, core curricular programs, including AP courses, courses that prepare them for SAT II exams, and those that are prerequisites for further studies, at Episcopal or beyond. We have a responsibility to fully prepare our students in these core curricular areas and skills, and would be doing our students a disservice to scale that back. While colleges themselves look to innovate their own programming, they are still relying on and expecting excellent high school programs to push student through core content, often in very discrete, isolated courses.

So can we have both? Can we provide our students with the level of rigor and content needed as a foundation for future learning, which will also allow them to get into and succeed at the best colleges, while still stepping off that train long enough to allow them to explore passions, to see emerging connections between subjects, and to develop critical skills? I argue that we can, but it takes talented teachers, a school willing to push the envelope, and a lot of patience.

Several independent schools have explored interdisciplinary programs, either in two- or three-week periods in the middle of the year or as integrated elements of the main program. Episcopal will begin its own interdisciplinary program in January 2014, JTerm, which has enormous potential to transform our learning connections.

The trick to the success of these programs is that the teachers need to themselves identify the common threads and areas of connection across the program. Student passion and learning will undoubtedly feed off of teacher passion and learning. As teachers are encouraged to talk to one another more and to break down the walls between disciplines, natural learning paths will emerge. These connections do not need to derail our core curricular goals, and we don’t need to find ourselves behind in the content train. In fact, recognizing and encouraging these partnerships only bolsters the content and skills in exciting ways.

I am more excited by our JTerm program than I have been about any other curricular change since I have been at Episcopal. It has tremendous potential, as we have an outstanding faculty who I believe will be liberated and excited by the opportunity to explore passions, to create new relationships with colleagues across the school, and to establish deep and lasting connections to students through an in depth learning experience.

Duke University defines interdisciplinarity as “inquiry across disciplines” (http://www.interdisciplinary.duke.edu/about/history-strategy). The more that schools can move towards the idea of student inquiry as a core element of learning and away from a passive notion of students as receptacles of learning, the more our students will take ownership of their learning journey, leveraging it into something transformative.

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