A “typical day” for most of us is all about multitasking and using a variety of skills at the same time. Many of these skills are often associated with what we learned in school, such as budgeting your income and paying bills (math), navigating to a new destination (geography and technology), interpreting ‘reporting and writing an accessible response, just to name a few.

We use a skill set every day in various contexts and often simultaneously, but the traditional education model, especially in an upper secondary setting, is based on the premise that subjects are taught in silos. Although this form of education has served its purpose, in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world (VUCA) where we are, as some would say, at the start of “Industry 4.0”, our younger generations must be engaged in deeper learning that combines relevant content and inspires a new thirst for knowledge and inquiry.

One of the slogans I often hear is the idea that schools must prepare students for the world beyond school walls. This statement is valid, however, in order to achieve this result, it is important that we recognize that working in silos does not make this idea a reality. Learning opportunities should be planned around interdisciplinary actions to foster and develop the 21st century ‘real world’ skills that we constantly hear and read. Skills such as collaboration, understanding, communication out of curiosity, and adaptability should be part of the toolbox of current and future students.

Research shows that interdisciplinary teaching, also known as transdisciplinary learning, can improve problem understanding, confidence, thinking skills, creativity, and students’ ability to ask complex questions. These are all key skills for the world of today and tomorrow.

Interdisciplinary learning sees lessons structured across subjects to encourage a deeper understanding and context of the subject. Cross-curricular learning allows students to examine the material from various perspectives and positions to help see how different perspectives and understandings contribute to the outcome.

Transversal preparation requires more planning and collaboration from the teacher’s perspective, but invariably a higher level of engagement and understanding is the usual outcome for most students.

St Stephen’s School was founded on this idea. Staff offices and staff rooms throughout the school are structured according to learning zones. We have teachers from various disciplines sitting side by side on a daily basis, which encourages conversations that focus on both cross-curricular learning and student well-being.

Some of the more recent examples of transdisciplinary learning at St Stephen’s School include our recent senior production of The Life of Lindy Chamberlain, which takes place in a courtroom. Our drama teachers and students worked with the policy and law teams to obtain resources and advice on set and performance to stay “true” to the text. The highest level of understanding from the students made for a thrilling performance.

Our Grade 11 and 12 ATAR visual arts students also visited the school’s science labs during several lessons to begin their investigative work for their semester 1 studio pieces. Students were asked to consider how art and science have been treated as two separate disciplines, but when studied together what changes and how does one discipline impact the other? The students engaged in the idea that it takes a lot of creativity to make scientific breakthroughs and that art can often be an expression of scientific knowledge in another medium.

Cross-curricular learning is not just for our older students. Some of our little ones in our Early Learning Center combine art and geography lessons by studying artistic designs from different parts of the world. Students learn about the country’s position on the map and immerse themselves in the art and culture behind it, giving them a better understanding early on in their learning journey.

Cross-curricular learning also overcomes the idea that if a student can simply repeat or memorize information, they are considered to be “proficient” in the content of that subject. This gives them the opportunity to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions based on the material and information provided or researched. The result is higher order thinking and more transferable skills.

Knowing the effects of interdisciplinary learning, we need to help teachers use strategies that develop deeper learning opportunities so that future generations are best equipped to engage in the world of the future.

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