Not only does the brain make and re-make connections in order to integrate new information but the relevance of that information to the learner is determined by the connections made to his existing knowledge. Much of the learner’s knowledge is in disciplines other than the one being studied. Making links to these other disciplines strengthens mental connections and enhances the understanding of key ideas. Authentic Active Learning activities encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and thereby increase the number of links to a student’s prior knowledge.
Atomic weights as understood by chemists are related to the structure of atoms as understood by physicists. Mathematics is one of the tools physicists use to express theories in Physics. Mathematicians describe their discipline as a language for representing things and events which are impossible to see. Furthermore, all disciplines are defined by a core set of principles which share common roots. And so learners can make an unlimited number of connections from one discipline to another.
One teacher with an interest in sustainable ecology encourages students in English and History to write narratives as told by the hundred-year-old trees on campus. A course in Forensics is team-taught by teachers from the Physics, Biology, and Chemistry departments. Students in Business Administration, Computer Science, and Nursing take an Ethics course addressing ethical issues in their respective fields. These are examples of the deliberate linking of disciplines. However, teachers often hesitate to stray from their own specialties when designing learning activities. This is especially true in secondary and post-secondary education where disciplines have become clearly identified and departmentalized. Straying onto another department’s territory can sometimes seem dangerous.
Some teachers may feel uncomfortable leaving their own areas of expertise. This often stems from the mistaken belief that, as teachers, they must have all the answers to all questions. This belief has been reinforced by years of teacher lecturing. When teachers make the shift to Active Learning the pressure to know everything is reduced. They can feel comfortable that in an environment of collaborative learning they may learn also.
When institutions adopt a competency-based approach to education they inevitably choose the program approach as well. This is because a program’s stated competencies often span disciplines and in order for students to acquire them the program must bring together courses and teachers from different departments, motivated by a desire to collaborate. As an example, Business students need to be able to write an effective business report. To do this requires language skills on the one hand and the understanding of Business concepts and terminology on the other. Additionally, it might be necessary to understand Statistics.
So teaching interdisciplinary concepts is not an unknown idea. Students study more than one discipline at a time throughout their educational careers. It is therefore reasonable to expect them to make links to other disciplines and courses. If crossing disciplinary lines seems difficult for an individual teacher, team teaching is often a good solution. This enriches the learners’ experiences by providing multiple perspectives within the same course.
Finally, some topics are difficult to understand if looked at from only one disciplinary perspective. Climate change is a good example. It is difficult to understand without some knowledge of Science, Economics, History, Geography, and probably other disciplines as well.
Insight Into Everything. Through exploration of the humanities we learn how to think creatively and critically, to reason, and to ask questions. Because these skills allow us to gain new insights into everything from poetry and paintings to business models and politics, humanistic subjects have been at the heart of a liberal arts education since the ancient Greeks first used to them to educate their citizens. [Stanford University Humanities Department Introduction]