Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Perils of Discovery Learning, Part III: 'Interdisciplinary' Activities

One of the big "buzz words" in mathematic circles today is "interdisciplinary" activities and projects.

If I'm teaching a unit in Science, students might do research in my class or the Library, write papers using skills taught in Writing class, and then generate the paper in the Computer Lab. Or if students are learning about Indian Villages in History, they might work in groups, or individually, to make a village in Art Class.

I often feel that teachers are evaluated (unofficially perhaps) on how much content crosses over into other disciplines, although no requirements have ever been made of me in my private school. It has been "suggested" that I find ways to involve other disciplines, but that's been the extent of it.

I have seen instances when I feel an interdisciplinary project has been very effective and where students are completely immersed. If the other discipline is a favorite of a student, if he loves art, or if she loves to write, he or she will really be engaged. I just don't like the pressure of forcing the project where it doesn't naturally go, where time is lost, all for the sake of "show". We can now brag at how many other disciplines were involved!!!

Dr. Wayne Wickelgren has made studies of interdisciplinary projects and I respect his opinion. In his book, Math Coach, A Parent's Guide to Helping Children Succeed in Math, he contrasts the traditional approach with the interdisciplinary approach:

"The traditional approach, in which classes are arranged by topics, such as arithmetic, fractions, algebra and geometry that build from one level to the next, has been used for decades for good reason. The material within each subject hangs together in logical ways, and is typically broken down into smaller units within which knowledge is even more tightly linked. Teaching students to hang together closely related pieces of knowledge makes sense and produces a deep understanding of a subject."

[That is just beautiful! And it makes such good sense.]

Hangs together in logical ways.

Now for Dr. Wickelgren's assessment of the interdisciplinary approach:

"Teaching across subject boundaries lacks depth. It may be fun for the students, but it doesn't help the mind organize the knowledge in a logical way, making it harder to remember."

There is also the likelihood that a teacher will overlook an important basic fact or principle that would usually be included in an incremental, structured approach.

I just have to say this one more time:
Hangs together in logical ways