Interdisciplinary Curiculum Planning

(Adapted from Carla Mathison and Cheryl Mason, College of Education, San Diego State University, Planning Interdisciplinary Curriculum: A Systematic and Cooperative Approach; presentation to: ASCD Annual Conference, Orlando, FL, 1989)


In his literature class, Mr. Cline gives students the dates of the birth and death of a famous author, and asks them to figure out how old the author was when she died. Silence falls over the class as students scratch their heads in frustration. One student exclaims, "It's hard to do math in English class!"

How often do we find our students reluctant or unable to recognize and use knowledge they already posses to help them solve new problems or understand new, related concepts? This phenomena can be directly tied to the ways in which students initially learn information. In an educational era where tremendous emphasis is placed upon specialized knowledge, the segregated clustering of subject area instruction often prevents students from identifying important interconnections among the subjects they study.

The challenge for teachers is to find a healthy and meaningful balance between curricular breadth and depth. The long history of research on the ways in which students learn provides a strong rationale for the value of interdisciplinary instruction. In the 17th and 18th centuries, predecessors of modern psychology, including [ and Hartley, speculated that meaningful learning involved the formulation of associated between concepts. More recent research in cognitive science strongly supports this view. The work of Ausubel (1968), Neisser (1976), and others in the 1960's and 1970's led to our current notion of schematic structures in the brain. These schematic structures, composed of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of interconnected bits of information, serve as a framework for our knowledge. The goodness of our schematic structures is highly dependent upon the way in which we initially process information presented to us. Ausubel referred to these associations as `cognitive hooks'. Instruction which provides students with links to connect otherwise discrete bits of knowledge enhances their ability to recognize and apply prior knowledge to new, related learning situations.


Although the development of integrated learning experiences is important, we teachers often find it difficult to plan such experiences for our students. While a current emphasis on a `whole language' orientation in the elementary curriculum assists us as we help students understand relationships among reading, writing, and oral language, most middle and secondary school curricula retain a nonintegrated approach to subject matter instruction. Textbooks and teachers' guides rarely emphasize relationships between the subject area of major concentration and other disciplines. As a result, teachers have neither the information nor the time needed to realistically include interdisciplinary experiences in curricular planning.

While we cannot always change the existing middle and high school curricular materials rapidly or directly, we can employ a planning process which will allow us to periodically incorporate cross-disciplinary ideas and activities into our repertoire of instructional strategies.

Guidelines for Planning


While each of us has particular subject matter expertise, we have also accumulated knowledge and developed interests in other areas. Additionally, we have access to colleagues whose subject matter concentrations differ from our own. Using these resources, we can conceptualize and construct instructional lessons which help students understand important and interesting relationships between the disciplines.

The guidelines below can help us as we develop interdisciplinary lessons.

  1. Formulate a goal statement which indicates the principle(s) or concept(s) to be understood at the completion of the lesson. What are the primary pieces of information or concepts that you want students to understand? Often, interdisciplinary lessons do not concentrate on the mastery of specific skills. By their very nature, these lessons usually focus on the application of skills and knowledge to novel situations. For this reason, goals of interdisciplinary lessons will usually involve helping students understand how the skills and knowledge they possess can be combined to accomplish a task, discover a solution, or explain a situation.
  2. Select the primary content base which will serve as the catalyst for instruction. Often, the content base will be determined by the text. There are times, however, when your goal necessitates the use of other, ancillary materials. In either case, determine the primary vehicle which will drive the instruction (e.g., a work of art or literature, a scientific or mathematical principle, an event or era in history, etc.)
  3. Identify events, discoveries, and writings within other disciplines that relate to the primary content base in a meaningful way. Through talking with colleagues and brainstorming on your own, consider information in other disciplines that seem to relate to the primary content. At this point, you may find it helpful to look at the table of contents in the textbooks you will be using. However, don't discount your own expertise, the films or plays you've seen, the books or magazine articles you've read, and your life experience.
  4. Determine the key points of intersection between the disciplines which correspond to the established terminal goal of instruction. As you investigate each cross-discipline idea in more depth, keep your terminal goal well in mind. It is often the case that we become so enthralled in the idea itself that we lose sight of our major instructional intent. While this is intellectually enjoyable, it is a time-consuming luxury that few of us can afford. Some ideas will probably need to be discarded, either because they are too complex, or because they do not fully address the goal. Other ideas may be so compelling and enlightening that you may want to revise the terminal goal to reflect new insights you have gained.
  5. Formulate instructional objectives. Again, it should be noted that most interdisciplinary lessons will not focus on the mastery of specific skills. Nevertheless, it is important to determine what you expect your students to be able to do when they have completed the lesson. As in other instructional planning, objectives serve as the springboard for the development of the instructional strategies and activities you will use.
  6. Identify the necessary prerequisite knowledge that students must possess in each discipline area you will address. Interdisciplinary instruction can fall apart if students lack knowledge of key principles or concepts within each discipline. Carefully consider the prerequisite skills students must have before they can successfully accomplish the objectives you have set forth. Sometimes, missing skills or pieces of information can be taught rather quickly. However, when this is not the case, it will be necessary to revise the interdisciplinary content.
  7. Formulate instructional strategies which will compel students to use their knowledge in one discipline to better understand and appreciate another. Students are not used to activating their knowledge in one discipline while studying another. For this reason, it is important to develop activities which require this transfer in a purposeful way. Depending upon the content and timeframe of instruction, you may want to use conceptual mapping, in-class debates, group projects, and/or a variety of discovery techniques to accomplish your goal. The critical component of interdisciplinary lessons, as in most instruction, is active and invested participation.


Giving our students opportunities to explore interconnections among the subject areas they are studying has many advantages. Interdisciplinary instruction adds meaning and relevancy to learning as students discover fascinating and compelling relationships between disciplines. New perspectives are developed which help students construct a more integrated web of knowledge. Not only does this powerful knowledge structure facilitate the assimilation of new information, it also increases students' understanding of and appreciation for the wealth of information and ideas they already possess.


Editor's Note: Lesson outlines in A Living Laboratory typically show a list of content areas to which the lesson may pertain. It is our hope that teachers will be inspired by this curriculum to team across the content areas, giving students increased opportunity to establish meaningful connections between learnings in one subject and learnings in another.


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