Schools and the education system in general are often criticized for delivering isolated pieces of content to children, which are then regurgitated back to teachers in subject-specific assessment tasks.  Skills, concepts, and knowledge learned in one subject are rarely used when working in a different subject area, and students are typically pulled in seven or eight different directions by the subjects they study every week.  At the end of their educational experience, they take exams and receive grades for individual subjects.

Yet every book I’ve read in recent years on knowledge, neuroscience, memory, and learning focuses on connections.

I’m also fairly sure that any success I’ve had in my professional life is at least partly due to an ability to connect and utilize knowledge and skills from different subject areas.

The International Baccalaureate has realized that and is now making a concerted effort to promote interdisciplinary learning in the MYP.  IB Curriculum designers have drawn up a set of objectives for interdisciplinary learning, and starting in May 2016, students will be able to sit interdisciplinary e-assessments and receive certificates.  These e-assessments will require students to draw upon conceptual understanding and skills from a variety of subjects.

In recent years teachers at IICS have been making a bold effort to give students the opportunity to work on interdisciplinary units in the MYP.   During the first semester of this year, students in Grade 8 completed a unit on ‘cities’, which required them to solve an urban problem in a city of their choice using knowledge from humanities and science.  More recently, students in Grade 7 have been drawing on their understanding from PE, Science, and Humanities to design fitness and diet plans in a unit on ‘Healthy Living;’.  Both of these units have been delivered using the MYP Design Cycle, which provides students with a structure to work on such lengthy projects.

It is important, however, to understand the nature of interdisciplinary learning in the MYP.  Students in Primary Schools often work on Units of Inquiry through a transdisciplinary approach.  These units focus on themes that teachers want students to explore, and the inquiry is not divided into subject-specific content areas.  In interdisciplinary units, teachers generally begin by helping students to learn the subject-specific knowledge and skills that are relevant to the unit.  After that, students will then use their disciplinary learning to work on a project that requires them to see the connections between the subjects that they have been studying.  The interdisciplinary projects, therefore, force the students to apply knowledge and reflect on their learning at a higher cognitive level.  Such an approach also allows our teachers to continue to cover the content and skills required in their particular subjects.

Delivering interdisciplinary work is always a challenge to teachers.  Such an approach requires collaboration, negotiation, flexibility, and a willingness to engage in challenging pedagogical strategies.  In order to facilitate the delivery of our interdisciplinary units, 9 teachers at IICS have been working as a Professional Learning Community this year to plan and explore ways to maximize the potential of these units.  Reflecting on this year’s units, they found that there are a few really important areas to consider when planning and delivering such a unit.

Grade level teachers must first identify natural links in the curriculum from which to develop interdisciplinary units or be willing to create new units that connect meaningfully.  While doing this, it is also important to consider topics that students are interested in or that are tangible parts of their lives.  The Grade 7 project involving healthy nutrition (Sciences), fitness (Physical Health and Education), and the environmental impact of our food (Humanities) is a great example.  Lastly, as teachers collaborate to plan from the ground up, it is important to deliver the project in a way that meets the needs of all learners.  This includes modifying access to information for English language learners (and others), delivering the project into small, “bite sized” components to help students manage their time, and to consider a range of appropriate products for the students to demonstrate their learning.  To give students the best, most valuable learning experience, it is essential for teachers to have time to regularly discuss the progress of the unit it as it is delivered, as well as discuss what improvements can be made for the next year.

This valuable work by our MYP teachers should help students to engage in projects in the coming years which enable them to see the connections between the knowledge and skills that they are learning in all of their subjects.  In our ideal world, no teenage student would ever ask every Secondary School teacher’s most hated question, “Why are we learning this?”.  They would all see the relevance and they would all see the connections.

–Joe Lumsden

Joe Lumsden