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The interdisciplinary ripple effect

Jigsaw headThe IB is celebrated for the range of opportunities it provides for interdisciplinary teaching and learning, but do these elements sometimes get shunted to the sidelines in the classroom? IB World Magazine investigates

How many teachers have asked the class a question, to which a student says: “This is a biology class, why are we learning about mathematics and physics?” or a response to that effect?

An interdisciplinary approach – the combination of two or more academic disciplines – encourages students to make their own connections between subjects, and supports the aims of the IB Learner Profile – to be open-minded and to appreciate differing perspectives and methods. But sometimes interdisciplinary learning can fall by the wayside.

The TOK (theory of knowledge) course calls on IB Diploma Programme students to reflect on the full range of academic fields, but if reflection is limited to these classes, an interdisciplinary approach can become compartmentalized. How can teachers embed this culture into the classroom and help students see the value in integrating an interdisciplinary approach into their everyday lives? A collaborative effort with the TOK department is necessary.

Many of the world’s problems can be solved using an interdisciplinary approach. This can also result in a deeper understanding and appreciation of the wider world. The more students learn, the more common groundwork they will find across disciplines.

Science is intrinsically interdisciplinary. New disciplines have emerged during the past couple of generations which are re-combinations of existing categories – biochemistry, cybernetics, biomedical engineering and neuroscience are perfect examples. Theories suggest that more will emerge in the future.

Teachers might find interdisciplinary ideals go beyond their reach in high school. It can be difficult for individual teachers to address all these fields, most of which lie outside their main competence and possess differing and distinctive (if overlapping) ways of conceiving, acquiring, testing and communicating knowledge. It’s not always easy to find time for a TOK moment but an interdisciplinary approach, put into action everyday, can compliment this.

Plenty of research is available that demonstrates deeper understanding can be achieved through interdisciplinary synthesis. When the connections, contrasts and contradictions start to multiply, suddenly new dimensions begin to unfold and students experience a ripple effect as this new way of thinking will increase their awareness of the wider world.

Share your thoughts on interdisciplinary learning: email editor@ibo.org

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  • Marlon Witbooi

    I am an honours student pursuing my degree in group dynamics
    and the initial focus was to be put on micro sociology which our prof suggested
    be to narrow. So we also incorporated macro sociology. Now coming from studying
    BA Psychology as my previous degree, it was quite an adjustment because
    Psychology or how we were taught was very structural as to becoming part of the Sociology faculty with the Group Dynamics we looked at symbolic interaction, social construction, functionalism and structural, some interpretations of Marxism, touching on social phenomenology, and just touching on post-modern thoughts or interpretations of things.

    Now for someone that never liked reading a lot this was
    mind-blowing. I say that because it’s time consuming and mentally exhausting
    taking in everything and taking it into consideration in your explanation and
    discussion. Looking at interpretations of things and issues and how it could
    and has possibly influenced things brought a light, broader view of things and
    argument to me that I personally wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

    I think a possible reason why academics wouldn’t want to
    look at interdisciplinary work is because of the blurry lens effect. If you
    take too many lenses, especially if they in opposition of each other making
    conclusions would be the hardest. I mean which way would be the best way?

    Now think about the effect of the advancement in technology
    and the changes in society, the way little boys treat little girls now as
    oppose to 100 years ago, how relationships develop now and why, how the
    capitalist system influences our thinking and behaviour and how popular culture
    could just be a distraction. How the accessibility of resources in some views have made people lazy, and the impact that all formats media on people.

    Using as little as three different perspectives as
    a start would make some make a way for the hills, what to mention three
    different perspectives from three different disciplines.

    We need to be mentally, academically and socially hands-on in
    the current day and age where everything is available at the push of a button,
    where anyone can say anything and sound smart. This calls us to look at teachers and their role in the development of children’s education, the homes parents create for the children and what is society’s views on things. Because if there is a societal shift, or shift in culture, there’s a shift in almost all other spheres.

  • Kate Taverner

    Many thanks for your
    post, Marlon. You raise very interesting points. Interdisciplinary learning can
    result in a deeper understanding and appreciation of the wider world. In
    contrast, we hope that the accessibility of resources and the advancement
    of technology will encourage people to take a more proactive approach in making
    connections between different subjects.

  • Sea-Yun Pius Joung

    I am a student in the IB and in Biology class, I often input using my rather little, but quite useful Latin. My classmates quite often complained about it saying “It’s a biology class, why are you discussing Latin?” but after a while, and after a rather useful terminology quiz, this etymology is seen to be much more important.

    Since most terms in Biology either come from Greek or Latin, it is vital that it be discussed, since students can much more easily understand terms.

    Also, I have been quite public in advocating against embryonic stem cell research during an ethics discussion during Biology class, which was called out of order by many other students under the claim “It’s not an ethics class”.

    I believe this is because students in the IB Diploma are under a time pressure: they need to complete an exam in 18 months, which is all that seems to count for many of them.

    The students who have built up an interdisciplinary understanding from a good PYP and/or MYP school understand the continuum of the IB, and that it is quite simply a continuum of the MYP understandings of the Learner Profiles and ATLs. However, since the Diploma course only covers the syllabus (or so the teachers say), it is the case that the most important aspects of the IB – its interdisciplinary and value-based natures are ignored.