Interdisciplinary Learning

The real world isn’t divided into school subjects. Learn how we design our interdisciplinary curriculum.

Emily Veno
May 3, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community

What school subjects did you use in your job today?

Go ahead, really think!

Chances are, you can't quite pinpoint one. Maybe you used your English skills to read emails, write a memo, or develop a presentation. Maybe the content involved math, or psychology, or science. But you likely have a hard time separating problems you solve on a daily basis into subject areas.

The real world is not a tidy collection of compartmentalized subjects, each in its own neat little box. Solving real-world problems requires a blend of knowledge and skills from various disciplines.

Consider climate change for instance. Effective climate change solutions will require collaboration between the disciplines of politics, economics, engineering, biology, chemistry, physics, ethics, and technology.

This is why interdisciplinary learning is an exciting idea in education. By integrating different subjects into a single learning experience, we can better prepare students to solve the world’s biggest problems, which don’t fall neatly into school subjects.

At Prisma, we use an interdisciplinary approach in our middle school and high school curriculum. Interdisciplinary education helps kids develop a holistic understanding of the world, while also nurturing critical thinking, creativity, and adaptability - key ingredients for success in today's complex and ever-changing landscape.

In this post, we’ll give you an inside look on why the future of school is multidisciplinary, including proven benefits of interdisciplinary studies for learners. We’ll also break down how we design our engaging interdisciplinary themes.

What is Interdisciplinary learning?

Interdisciplinary learning is an educational approach integrating knowledge and skills from different disciplines to create a more holistic, connected learning experience.

In an interdisciplinary learning environment, instead of having Science class, then History class, then Math class, each comprised of activities unrelated to each other, learning is organized into interdisciplinary units, combining learning from multiple disciplines into one.

Let’s use as an example one of our interdisciplinary themes, “Cities of the Future.” In this theme, middle school learners explored the real-world challenge of sustainable urban development. Tackling this issue involves fields such as urban planning, architecture, ecology, economics, and technology. By designing everything from model cities, eco-friendly buildings, and public art, kids learned concepts traditionally taught in science, social studies, and English, but applied to the real-world problems of city planning.


Rise of Interdisciplinary Education

Interdisciplinary learning has been championed by various organizations in education. Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education focuses on interdisciplinary research in the arts and humanities, while High Tech High, a network of California-based charter schools, emphasizes a project-based pedagogy of interdisciplinary teaching.

The London Interdisciplinary School, called “the most radical new university to open in decades,” has done away with traditional college majors in favor of interdisciplinary ones around real-world problems, like climate change, social media’s impact on health, or food waste.

The MIT Media Lab, a lab on the frontier of cutting-edge research on AI, city planning, and education, goes even further, embracing what they call anti-disciplinary learning. “As we engage in tackling harder and harder problems that require many fields and perspectives, the separation of disciplines appears to be causing more and more damage,” says Joi Ito, former director of the Media Lab.

The Benefits of Interdisciplinary Teaching for Learners

  1. Real-world relevance: When kids see why what they’re learning matters, they’re much more motivated and engaged. When we compartmentalize subjects, we make it unclear how those subjects are used in the real world. For example, when the only writing assignments you are given in school are to write 5-paragraph essays your English teacher alone will read, you’re unlikely to grasp why writing is an essential skill in many careers. Imagine if, instead, you write a product pitch for an invention you developed to solve a real-world sustainability problem, like our learners did for the Biomimicry Youth Design Challenge in our theme Wild Inventions. Prisma learners are still taught foundational writing skills, they just apply them to real world problem-solving in an interdisciplinary way.
  2. Deeper learning: Deeper learning theory posits learners need to go beyond surface-level memorization of knowledge and simple application of skills. This approach places emphasis on the ability to apply learning to complex, real-world problems and novel contexts. Solving the kinds of problems in interdisciplinary learning experiences demands more than understanding how to use skills in one subject area, requiring a synthesis of knowledge and skills from various disciplines. This requires rigorous, deep thinking!
  3. Personalized learning: When kids connect learning to their interests and strengths, they’re more motivated to learn and engage with topics outside their comfort zones. Since interdisciplinary learning combines multiple subject areas, it provides more opportunities for kids to find areas of the learning experience they’re interested in. Imagine an artistic learner who says “I hate science,” but discovers an appreciation for biology after an interdisciplinary unit about agar art. In this way, interdisciplinary teaching allows learners to apply their strengths in one subject area to another subject area, growing their confidence and sense of self.

How to Design Interdisciplinary Curriculum

At Prisma, our curriculum team has developed a unique interdisciplinary approach well-suited for our virtual environment. Here’s how we suggest approaching interdisciplinary learning design:

1. Develop a unified learning framework

Planning learning outcomes for an interdisciplinary school requires collaboration between experts in different disciplines. Our curriculum design team (with experts in all school subjects) used an iterative process to create a list of key competencies and standards learners should master throughout grades 4-12. We organized these skills into discipline-specific categories (for example, the scientific method in science, or grammar & mechanics in writing) and created a category of skills that apply to multiple disciplines (such as design thinking, entrepreneurship, and data analysis). We decided how often each competency needed to be covered, and use this “map” to plan our interdisciplinary units (called “themes”).

2. Use project-based learning

Learning through projects lends itself well to interdisciplinarity because both approaches ask learners to apply learning to real-world contexts for problem-solving. In a project-based learning process, learners investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex “essential question.” They collaborate with peers, connect with experts & mentors, and share their work with an audience upon completing their project. At Prisma, we design projects for each interdisciplinary theme learners can choose from to demonstrate achievement of the key competencies.

3. Develop engaging interdisciplinary themes

In addition to the mapping & scoping process described above, our curriculum team draws on high-interest topics kids love, and highly urgent, topical real-world issues to develop themes. Our themes produce high levels of student engagement, with 96% of learners surveyed saying they enjoy our themes.

Here are some examples of our past interdisciplinary theme titles and the disciplines they combined: Build a Business (Economics, math, design thinking, and web design), World of Wonder (Earth science, poetry, and visual art), The Future of Health (Genetics, design thinking, ethics, and chemistry), Unsolved Mysteries (History, digital citizenship, journalism, and technology), and 8 Billion Stories (World cultures, literature, and performing arts).

4. Build opportunities for collaboration

To make interdisciplinary curriculum relevant to real-world contexts, it’s important for learners to have opportunities to solve problems together. In our live workshops, kids engage in collaborative problem solving relevant to the theme. For example, in the World of Wonder theme, middle school kids had to re-power a city that had lost power due to natural disasters. Learners researched which energy sources to use while staying under budget, and pitched a layout of various energy sources reaching all citizens. We also develop lesson plans where kids debate topics related to the theme, using critical thinking to develop viewpoints inspired by evidence. Even if most of your interdisciplinary unit is centered around an individual project, incorporate as many opportunities for collaboration & discussion as possible.

5. Interdisciplinary instruction is a team effort

One of the biggest challenges to pulling off interdisciplinary teaching is not all educators are comfortable with all subject areas. At Prisma, collaboration among designers and coaches is essential. During the design process, designers from different subject areas co-brainstorm, making sure each competency is covered appropriately and finding synergy between disciplines. We ensure adequate professional development leading up to a theme (for example, running coding or engineering workshops for coaches before a technology-heavy theme), and keep lines of communication open as a theme runs. We trade off serving as “experts” depending on the theme topic. For example, a learning coach who is an expert in digital modeling might volunteer to run extra support hours for learners who are stuck during an engineering theme.

6. Assessment should be interdisciplinary, too

It can be tricky to figure out how to assess an interdisciplinary learning experience when we are used to traditional grades broken out by subject area. We use a mastery-based badge system to assess learning. Each project is broken into specific skills covered, and kids can earn a badge for demonstrating achievement of each skill. For example, in a World of Wonder project, kids could earn badges in Earth Science, Data Analysis, and Visual Art. Learning coaches are provided a rubric outlining criteria for success in each skill to determine which badges kids have earned. This system helps us track learning in each subject, while keeping intact the interdisciplinarity of the learning process.

We’ve made interdisciplinary learning central to our curriculum at Prisma because we believe strongly in the power of making school more like the real-world.

Leena Williams, Lead Coach and Curriculum Designer in our high school, explains the power of interdisciplinary teaching in her own words:

“21st century problems aren’t solved in neat subject-area boxes; they will be solved by doing the messy and creative work of bringing together disparate knowledge and experiences, combining them with strong values and ethical thinking, and having the courage to go out on a limb. Our curriculum puts learners in those positions and lets them experiment and think outside the box in low-stakes ways, now while they are young, so that they can build those foundations to draw upon as they reach higher education and the workforce. In short, we present things as complex and open-ended because they are — we don't tidy them up for kids because we trust that kids can handle it.”

If you also believe strongly in the ability of learners to tackle tough, real-world challenges, we hope you’ll advocate for interdisciplinary learning in your own environment!

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