The Case for Interdisciplinary Study in High School

By Rocca, Al M. | Social Studies Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Case for Interdisciplinary Study in High School


Rocca, Al M., Social Studies Review


A few years ago my daughter, Jennifer, a sophomore at the local high school, came home with an information sheet that her teachers had given her that day. The flyer talked about an exciting new approach in curriculum that would be available for juniors. A new program named, Humanitas, had been developed among interested faculty and was going to be offered at the start of the next year. The approach being offered involved a concerted effort to initiate an integrated interdisciplinary curriculum. The first year would be a trial and only a select few of the incoming juniors would be able to be part of the program.

Jenni asked me about the interdisciplinary approach and if I thought she would benefit from the experience. Of course, I immediately replied in the affirmative and strongly encouraged her to apply. I was happy to hear just a couple of days later that she had taken my advice and applied for the program. I found out later that of equal importance-or maybe even more importantly, several of her friends had also applied.

During our conversations on this topic I asked Jenni, and some of her friends, to recall any instances where their high school teachers had tried to link their own subject content or skills to other disciplines. Not surprisingly, none of them could point to a particular lesson, chapter or unit of study. It was interesting to note that all of them felt that their classes were too "academically isolated," leaving students to surmise that a connection between subjects was not important.

Jennifer and her friends were pleasantly surprised to find the Hnmanitas program to be the most academically rewarding experience of their high school years. The program brought together four highly inspired teachers from four different disciplines. There schedules were arranged so that they had a common preparation period for planning and debriefing. English. Music, Art and History were the four subjects. Students in the program were well aware of the common planning and the constant cross-disciplinary discussions in the classes.

History was chosen to be the organizing discipline, as the English teacher selected relevant literature, of and about the period. The music and art teachers eagerly sought new opportunities to interweave their concepts and skill techniques to reflect the visual and performing arts of the period.

One of the best examples occurred when it came time to study the 1920s in American history. The history teacher looked deeply, using primary and secondary sources, into the causes of the nation's "giddy optimism" and the headlong rush to acquire fame and riches. They also looked deeply at the situation of minority groups and the plight of post-World War I farmers and copper miners. Meanwhile, the English teacher selected a classic novel from that time, The Great Gatsby. At every opportunity, the English teacher linked the story to historical events and trends. In the Music class, students listened to Louis Armstrong and "King" Oliver-popular jazz musicians. For classic blues, they heard the great voice of Bessie Smith. The highlight was learning to dance the "Charleston." Much of the visual art craze during the 1920s centered on the "Flapper" phenomenon and students were able to look at and study this style along with other 1920s art deco examples.

The exciting part of all of this was that students in the Humanitas program eagerly attended and participated in class. Academic connections did make sense. All four teachers rejoiced in the approach and the positive attitudes shown by the vast majority of students in the program.

Research on the human brain has revealed, in several important studies, that making intellectual connections between facts and ideas improves learning and retention of knowledge. Karlyn Wood, in Interdisciplinary Instruction (2001) cites Robert Sylwester's work which recommended that teachers, at all grade levels, attempt to make connections between their students' learning experiences at school. …

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