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What Is an Interdisciplinary Curriculum?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2016
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An interdisciplinary curriculum is a type of teaching method or course plan that incorporates the contributions of several disciplinary subjects on a single topic. The goal of most interdisciplinary curriculum programs is to provide students not only with an understanding of the central topic, but a deep comprehension of the relationships and broader context of the topic. While supporters of an interdisciplinary curriculum stress the values of contextualizing information as a means of improving comprehension, critics suggest that this method can lead to ignorance of more important topics, and the creation of excessive busy work as a means of filling out an interdisciplinary unit.

A typical interdisciplinary curriculum unit might connect several different classes in a high school or college setting. For instance, a unit on the Renaissance might include reading Shakespeare in English class, studying the Tudor dynasty and the Reformation in world history, and learning about Copernicus and the shift away from Geocentricism in science class. By teaching the subject across all three classes, teachers can fully immerse students in the topic, creating opportunities for students to investigate the connections and relationships between different aspects. Often, teachers will work together to create tests and term projects that help combine elements from each discipline, allowing students to demonstrate their comprehension of the broad subject.

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While interdisciplinary curriculum is frequently used to create a broader approach to a subject, it can also be used to narrow the field of examination. Some universities may offer interdisciplinary courses that combine a broad subject from one discipline with a more specific viewpoint of another. For example, a theater department might offer an interdisciplinary course with a department of African-American studies focused on the history and performance of plays by African Americans. These courses are typically offered to students majoring in either department, and allow a unique interaction on a common topic between students with different ways of approaching a theme. Ideally, courses such as this can serve to expand the understanding of students from both disciplines, while providing a deeper understanding of the core premise.

Critics of an interdisciplinary curriculum commonly cite several concerns with this method of teaching. For high school students, time spent on an interdisciplinary approach may take away from standardized test preparation, a major concern for students planning to attend college. Critics also voice concerns that not all classes included in an interdisciplinary unit will have an equal amount of information to impart, leading to an overload of information in content-heavy classes, but a waste of time resulting in meaningless busywork in content-light courses. Supporters of an interdisciplinary curriculum suggest that this second issue is manageable with proper planning and effort on behalf of the faculty, including measures such as pilot programs and a review system before the program is fully integrated.

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