Why chemistry teacher Matthew Simpson thinks collaborating with teachers of other subjects gives students a better learning experience
I have always been aware of the terms multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary, but it’s only recently I’ve understood what they really mean and why they are becoming so important in the world of education. While these can seem like interchangeable terms, they have subtle but important differences. For example, in a multidisciplinary approach a common goal is achieved by bringing together knowledge from different disciplines, but those disciplines remain separate. Interdisciplinary learning (IDL) is different because it integrates different disciplines to create an entirely new subject area. I think that both approaches are hugely beneficial to learning, but that IDL is more powerful with a greater potential benefit to our students.
I decided to find out more about IDL after reading the RSC Future of the Chemical Sciences report, which suggests the need for a more integrated approach to teaching. To me, this seems so obvious – after all, interdisciplinary subject areas are key to solving global problems and therefore define the job market and drive industry and innovation. So why is it that secondary school teaching focuses on such a rigid and monodisciplinary curriculum? Does the curriculum need to change, and do we need to change how we teach?
I decided to find out more about IDL after reading the RSC Future of the Chemical Sciences report, which suggests the need for a more integrated approach to teaching (rsc.li/3KWdOqe). To me, this seems so obvious – after all, interdisciplinary subject areas are key to solving global problems and therefore define the job market and drive industry and innovation. So why is it that secondary school teaching focuses on such a rigid and monodisciplinary curriculum? Does the curriculum need to change, and do we need to change how we teach?
Encouraging teamwork and collaboration
Real-world teamwork and collaboration
The importance of teaching fundamental disciplinary knowledge will never diminish. However, we still need to think more about preparing students for the real world and help them to see the relevance of chemistry’s role in it. Incorporating IDL into our teaching practices would be a great way to address this. It helps to give learning a context, which creates interest and engagement and therefore promotes inclusion. By definition, IDL encourages teamwork and collaboration. It also asks learners to draw upon knowledge and skills from different disciplines, nurturing creativity. IDL lends itself to incorporating career education into our everyday teaching too. The sciences are already interlinked and inherently dependent on one another and so science teaching is the perfect platform for IDL.
Team-teaching has been an amazing catalyst
My first experience of IDL started when I asked a colleague in the biology department if I could see their KS3 scheme of work. That’s all it seemed to take. We soon started planning a series of biochemistry lessons, where starch agar was used to investigate the effect of pH on enzyme activity. We deliberately set up the lessons so the students had to use their knowledge of both chemistry and biology, linking together chemical formulas, acids, alkalis, pH, enzyme action and the test for starch. To add a focus on careers, we asked students to take on the role of a research fellow. This approach also allowed us to promote the importance of scientific communication.
In a second endeavour with the geography department, a colleague and I found an area of overlap across the taught GCSE specifications. We collaboratively planned a lesson activity and homework task on environmental sustainability, which encouraged students to incorporate the details from knowledge of pollution, oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter in chemistry with their research into case studies of sustainable cities in geography. Lack of lesson time is commonly a barrier to this type of initiative, so we focused on developing knowledge and skills that would be taught anyway. With this approach we aimed to integrate IDL within our teaching, rather than letting it become a bolted-on extra.
Making it realistic and worthwhile
Exploring IDL and trying it out in some of my lessons has always been about improving learning for my students, but I think teachers have just as much to gain. Collaborative planning has been an enlightening experience as well as a joy to undertake, and team-teaching has been an amazing catalyst for self-reflection and personal improvement.
All this said, it is unrealistic for teachers to do this on a regular basis. To truly integrate more IDL into my teaching, I am keen to explore how we can remove the barriers. I don’t think it has to be a massive undertaking, and creating a short IDL starter activity or homework task is a realistic and worthwhile outcome for the busy teacher. So why not have a go? Approaching a colleague is all it takes!