What Are Interdisciplinary Studies? Curriculum, Approach & Examples

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All education systems are tasked with preparing students for their transitions into adulthood. In particular, an interdisciplinary curriculum, also referred to as a broad-based curriculum, is an approach to teaching and learning that abides by a so-called standard of knowledge, skill sets, and mindsets that, in theory, every student should master to be considered “life ready” by the time they graduate high school.

So, what is interdisciplinary studies? To put it simply, an interdisciplinary approach covers a wide range of topics and subjects, providing a strategic blend of learning experiences. Curriculum subjects can vary by region, district, or individual school, but subjects commonly include history, math, technology, literacy, the arts, and science.

This approach to curriculum design is meant to be especially impactful for students who do not have access to certain opportunities outside of school, due to factors such as poverty and systemic racism. For educators who follow an interdisciplinary approach, it is believed that every student should have access to as many learning experiences as possible as they grow and develop into the leaders of tomorrow.

What Is the Interdisciplinary Approach?

For more than a century, educational researchers have been advocating for a more integrated approach to teaching and learning. In the 1930s, Ralph Tyler, a prominent voice in 20th-century American education, led an eight-year study that followed students across 30 schools. The study observed that high school students strived for success when given access to streamlined content that was not siloed into subjects.

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Heidi Hayes Jacobs, an author and educator who has advocated for interdisciplinary studies for over two decades, echoes these findings. According to her research, under the traditional approach to education, students adhere to a bell schedule that breaks up their learning and focus throughout the day. “The primary disadvantage to this form of content construction is that it does not reflect the reality of life outside school. We simply do not function in a world where problems are discipline-specific in regimented time blocks,” Jacobs noted in the 1989 publication Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation.

Interdisciplinary studies focus on identifying overarching themes and making connections across disciplines. Students reap the benefits of the following core structural components of interdisciplinary learning, including:

  • Building foundational knowledge to develop a deep understanding of topics
  • Supporting the application of knowledge within different contexts
  • Integrating facts and skills across subjects
  • Encouraging students to consider real-world implications of the problems they study, building empathy and intellectual capacity
  • Creating a space for passion and curiosity
  • Learning “how to learn” and cultivating a genuine interest in learning

“It’s not a question of the disciplines versus interdisciplinary studies. We do need in-depth, discipline-based work. But it needs to be modernized so that students can apply the range of those skills in viable and real interdisciplinary problems,” Jacobs notes. “I don’t see a debate anymore. It’s more strategically, how do we modernize — upgrade — the curriculum so that students will learn how to connect the various fields they have studied and apply them in absolutely interdisciplinary, integrated problem-solving.”

Teaching Interdisciplinary Studies

Instead of serving as niche subject matter experts, teachers who work under the interdisciplinary studies approach are more empowered to be professional facilitators of learning. In this way, they are given more autonomy and leadership, which is beneficial for students, because teachers know their needs better than anyone else.

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One potential barrier teachers face in interdisciplinary curriculum is a lack of capacity for them to dedicate shared time to lesson plans. The interdisciplinary approach is highly effective when teachers dedicate a shared time to plan the material, pull the key themes, and identify points of interconnectedness across topics and subjects.

Students benefit from this approach because it affords them the opportunity to study a single topic or issue from a variety of different viewpoints. For example, if the topic is tourism, a student might learn about revenue generated by tourism in an economics class; hear some historical context of tourism in a history class; and study the top international tourism destinations in a geography class. Successful execution requires consistent planning and strategic coordination among teachers.

Along the way, this approach also develops students’ ability to think critically, confront their biases, and explore topics and challenges in more than one way. Further, students are better prepared to link what they learn in school to scenarios they encounter in their own lives. Teachers and researchers observe that students engage more, retain information more rapidly, and achieve deeper learning when they feel more connected to the coursework. Simply put, a classroom full of highly engaged, eager to learn students is a blessing for any teacher.

Interdisciplinary Learning & the Impacts It Has on Students

The way schools approach learning should evolve regularly to ensure students are being adequately prepared despite the ever-changing world. With this in mind, the interdisciplinary approach to learning more closely reflects the real world. When adults encounter real-world scenarios, our process and response includes making connections, asking questions, testing solutions, and applying different pieces of knowledge. The analysis of a problem cannot be limited to a single subject or topic.

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Isolated and disconnected studies have an adverse effect on student outcomes, because they miss the opportunity for students to make meaningful connections and apply their knowledge in more than one way. One research, A.F. Repko, asserts in a 2009 work that interdisciplinary instruction fosters advances in cognitive ability, while other researchers have suggested that interdisciplinary learning provides students with the ability to recognize bias; think critically; tolerate ambiguity; acknowledge diverse perspectives; and appreciate ethical concerns.

Curriculum Improvements for Better Schools

Primarily, interdisciplinary learning was introduced to help schools evolve their curriculum and foster an approach to teaching that better reflects what students encounter in the real world. By empowering students to make connections across topics, this approach allows for deeper learning and more real-world connections.

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Moreover, this approach helps students engage more, which means they are more likely to graduate high school and continue their learning. Additionally, both teachers and school leaders benefit when students arrive excited to learn and participate. In the end, interdisciplinary studies provide a stronger foundation to work from and allow for a more accurate, multifaceted measure of students’ success.