Lessons from a Social Studies Teacher: The Power of Interdisciplinary Work in a Competency-Based School

May 4, 2017 by

Interdisciplinary projects in a high school provide students with amazing opportunities to learn and grow. Though they can be incredibly valuable experiences, many teachers may face some pretty significant challenges depending on the structure of your school. So I will preface my observations by saying: We can do this in our school because it is valued by the administrators who have helped put people together who believe in it and created a schedule with the flexibility we need to make it work. Similarly, our school has developed small learning communities of teachers in different content areas who share the same students, thereby making interdisciplinary work possible. Finally, our schedule allows for teachers who share students to have common planning time to develop and implement interdisciplinary assignments and common assessments during the year. I recognize that not all schools have these structures in place, which might make this kind of work more challenging but does nothing to diminish its value.

Lesson #1: Two (or three) heads are better than one.

Working with competencies gives me the flexibility to choose a path for my students to demonstrate competency, which means I can select the content, resources, and experiences I want my students to explore. It also means that I can sit down with the biology and/or English teacher and we can look for places in our courses where we can find opportunities to create something together. Each of us can identify what we need our students to demonstrate on a particular performance task, and we can build on each other’s ideas in a way that textbook teaching doesn’t allow. As a result, our students have a richer, more diverse experience and we become better teachers. My favorite example of this is the emergency response plan we have our students write for all three of our classes. In English, they read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston about ebola in the United States; in Your Government, Your Money (a social studies class), we look at government agencies that are tasked with protecting the public from emergencies; and in Biology, they study how viruses and bacteria can be dangerous. This work is all happening at the same time in our classes, and students are totally immersed in the project.

Lesson #2: Get students excited about their learning.

Student engagement is one of our school district’s three pillars, something we are all focusing on and working to improve. This pillar is one of the reasons for doing this type of interdisciplinary work. They are more invested in what they are doing in each class because it is relevant to what they are learning in other classes and it’s not just another assignment done in isolation. Students have the opportunity to make connections between their classroom experiences and apply what they are learning in biology to what they are reading in English and what they are studying in Your Government, Your Money. Educational research tells us that making connections is a fundamental piece of learning for the long term, not just for now, and this is a natural way to help students connect to what they are learning and to increase their curiosity. For example, during our interdisciplinary units, it is not uncommon to overhear students in the hallway talking about the gross new information they learned about their contagion or the new facts about discrimination (the focus of another project we do) that have them outraged.

Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid to expect students to do more.

Interdisciplinary work in a competency-based school raises the bar on student performance because students have to apply their learning from multiple classes when they complete a performance assessment. Students have to learn the who, what, where, when, why, and how of common topic; make the appropriate connections ;and apply what they have learned to solve a problem or complete a task. For example, with The Hot Zone assignment, mentioned above, students have to develop an emergency response plan to a specific viral or bacterial contagion so they have to understand the biology. In that plan, they have to talk about which federal, state, and local government agencies and organizations would be involved, but they have to make sure that their proposal is realistic based on the contagion, whether its mono or anthrax. Similarly, they have to address how they would proceed if there was a mutation that made commonly used treatments ineffective. It’s deep, complex thinking and problem solving, and it is incredibly valuable.

Lesson #4: Finding success today and building skills to succeed tomorrow.

Unfortunately, with everything teachers have to do, one very important piece of the education puzzle fails to get the attention that it deserves. That piece is the inclusion of Work Study Practices. These skills will make it much easier for students to succeed not only on a project like the one described here and in school, but also in life; they are the ultimate transferable skills and will serve students well no matter what path they choose for the future. Interdisciplinary projects lend themselves to the introduction, instruction, and practice of these types of skills. The fact that students are working on assignments and tasks in multiple classes is a great opportunity for them to work on self-direction, problem solving, and time management, among others. Students have to keep their eyes on the prize and set goals to help them meet the necessary deadlines and requirements of the tasks they are working on. It may be one of the most realistic opportunities, as it compares to the real world.

Lesson #5: Let them be inquiry driven.

Creating inquiry driven projects make it easier to connect the learning between different content areas and teaches students valuable research skills. Posing a problem, challenge, or inquiry opportunity also allows for student choice, which can help with student engagement. Students may be able to choose a topic to explore, which tools to use, or which sources are most beneficial as they work. This also gives you the opportunity to incorporate technology and to reach out to your librarian to help students learn how determine whether or not they are using valid and reliable sources. This is especially important in the era of fake news because students have access to more information and potential sources than any one teacher can evaluate or provide, so it is essential to their success to be able to judge them for themselves.

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About the Author

Donna Harvey-Moseley is a long-time social studies educator in the Sanborn Regional School District with experience at both the middle and high schools. She has a BA in History from Merrimack College, an M.Ed. in Curriculum from Lesley University and CAGS in Administration from New England College. She has presented her work related to work study practices, personalized learning, the development and implementation of interdisciplinary project and competency-based grading and assessment at local and national conferences.

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