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IB Middle Years Programme: Interdisciplinary understanding in the context of learning

By Raul Pittavino, Secondary School Principal, IB Middle Years Programme, St. George’s College North, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Interdisciplinary understanding has emerged as one of the most effective methods of building new ways of learning, contributing as well to extending the disciplinary contexts that are contained within it.  However, for a number of reasons, the concept of interdisciplinary learning is more widely accepted in research circles than it is in the field of education, which prompts us to reflect deeply upon the current state of teaching, how it is structured, and what it means in light of the demands of the modern world. 

What does interdisciplinary understanding do for learning contexts?  Interdisciplinary understanding makes it possible to integrate content, methodologies, and specific languages that were previously disconnected and, by doing so, expands the processes of synthesis which, more often than not, stretch beyond the schooling process itself.  To be able to understand a phenomenon as complex as the evolution of Latin American identities and their rebirth at the verge of the bicentennial may actually be unachievable within traditional learning contexts. However, integrating ways of thinking from different disciplines makes it possible to generate a deeper understanding of these matters and, more importantly, makes it possible for even more in depth questions to be posed.

How is an interdisciplinary unit created?  An interdisciplinary unit needs to serve a purpose; it must respond to a need. The central theme of the unit has to be multifaceted and one needs to have a multidimensional understanding of these facets to decide which areas of interaction will provide the necessary data that, together with the learning organizers, will ultimately create an ideal learning experience.

The Port Cities of Latin America (Ciudades Puerto de Latinoamérica) project was created within the framework of the Middle Years Programme with the intention of establishing work spaces in schools for the interdisciplinary understanding of these phenomena to later transfer the experience to the educational communities developed in other large coastal cities in Latin America.  First of all, we ask ourselves to what extent our students know the city they live in and to what point a port city in Latin America represents a cultural and historical synthesis. These are complex questions, and it is clear that all of the answers cannot possibly come from a single discipline.

Which disciplines should be integrated?  To begin with, those knowledge access points which require specific information—for example, city planning or immigration processes—need to be clearly established. Then, once those elements that can be creatively extended and the necessary research and its application through analysis and related techniques are identified, the various disciplines will begin to make their own naturally balanced connections. 

For example, in an earlier project called Latin American Cultures (Culturas latinoamericanas), the disciplines fell into place around the construction of an indigenous musical instrument. While physics provided the calculations necessary to tune the instrument, music, through the application of the pentatonic scale, and visual arts, through the study of Andean iconography, made the instrument functional. The historical and social contexts were defined by contributions from history and geography. Methodologically, applying the creative cycle, which back then was the same for arts tasks and technology and design technology projects within the framework of the IB Middle Years Programme, was very important in establishing a work dynamic.

How does interdisciplinary education fit within a traditional disciplinary context?  The current system of teaching is not prepared for interdisciplinary learning, operating instead within a discipline-based organizational structure. Before starting, all elements that might be able to be transformed into suitable contexts for interdisciplinary learning need to be identified.

In Latin American Cultures, workshops were set up to make an indigenous musical instrument in which students worked alongside teachers from various disciplines. In Port Cities of Latin America, in addition to two trips with exploratory itineraries led by teachers from several different disciplines, there will be three library research sessions in which interdisciplinary links will be reinforced.

Why is it advantageous to teach and learn in an interdisciplinary context?  An interdisciplinary focus gives meaning to teaching, allowing teachers and students to develop a special interest in the object of study. Students are able to handle more content from several different disciplines and use it to solve problems, create or recreate objects, and answer crucial questions. When these elements are put together in a balanced context, the practices that follow usually guarantee a positive experience for the students.

Interdisciplinary knowledge is a new concept, as are the flexible disciplinary relations that lead to it. Therefore, interdisciplinary knowledge adds a different dimension to the teaching discipline, while also guarding against the repetitiveness that can result from the fractioning of learning contexts.

How many disciplines should be involved?  It is best to address the knowledge access points and to bear in mind the research and expansion needs of the central theme. Note that in order to propose an interdisciplinary understanding context, it is important for the theme to be connected to a relevant issue. It is also important to clearly establish what the logical deductions and what the disciplinary statistical inferences will be, as well as to outline the creative extensions that will take place throughout the unit. These elements will indicate which disciplines, when joined together, will be capable of solving the multifaceted problem at hand.

Does interdisciplinary knowledge exist? When the unit on Latin American Cultures was taught, we created a very interesting environment in which we were able to achieve interdisciplinary understanding. The interdisciplinary classes mentioned earlier allowed students to work with each and every one of the subject teachers as they moved towards building a new type of understanding. Through this learning context, they were able to work on creating a folkloric musical instrument while building their integrative understanding, ultimately allowing them to see how knowledge is interrelated, one of the objectives of the Middle Years Programme.

Is interdisciplinary learning a discipline?  The way teachers teach is also considered content. An interdisciplinary perspective helps obtain a multidimensional focus because of the number of knowledge access points involved and is, therefore, an effective methodology to answer the questions and solve the problems of the modern world. Once teaching goes beyond disciplinary learning, integrative understanding is built. In Latin American Cultures, constructing a cultural object made it possible for us to find meaning in its esthetic, technological, and anthropological synthesis. In Port Cities of Latin America, integrative understanding helps us interpret a culture created in different social-historic stages.

How do we know that interdisciplinary learning is taking place?  Without entering into a debate on current assessment practices, we will try to answer the questions that many teachers have about how an interdisciplinary unit is assessed.

To begin with, and in compliance with the requirements of our current teaching system, teachers need to make their assessments within the flexible disciplinary context of interdisciplinary understanding.  On a deeper integrative level, the unit coordinator needs to propose demonstrations of understanding that show whether interdisciplinary learning has been achieved. Interviews, multimedia presentations, essays, exhibitions at educational fairs or school assemblies, or written tasks have proven to give the best results.

The Latin American Cultures and Port Cities of Latin America interdisciplinary units were developed in collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education within the framework of the IB Middle Years Programme.