In the current incarnation of most high schools, classes are essentially silos of information that are not only specific to a discipline, but to a subset of information in that discipline. Not just science, but Biology. Not just mathematics, but Geometry. And so on. That creates a rigidity of thought in both student and teacher.

And while there is a lot of talk about interdisciplinarity these days, too often that just means that science teachers use some math in a project or an English class reads a Civil War novel while the US History teaches about the Reconstruction. But that misses the power and potential of what is possible when we see the intersections of our courses as more than just the occasional overlapping project.

As long as we continue to be bound by the regulations of teaching specific courses, we should strive for the idea of viewing our courses as lenses not silos. In this model, we learn science so that we can apply a scientific lens to the world around us. History becomes about case study and the tools of the historian to learn from a moment in time for what it holds for us now.

And then those tools can transcend the courses when students can ask real questions and solve real problems. This is what leads SLA students to analyze pollution trend data in a science class, overlaying socio-economic data with pollution data onto the map of Philadelphia and asking questions about what they find, or take on a local issue of importance to them in an English classroom and design and implement a direct action campaign to affect change. Or when they do real world data modeling in an Algebra I class, using variable manipulation to solve architecture problems and sports forecasts. Or write essays on identity in Spanish while designing masks that are representations of who they are.

And these projects are not specifically “interdisciplinary” in that they don’t have to be joint projects between two teachers. They are an ancillary benefit of teachers seeing themselves as teachers of kids before being teachers of subjects. It places the student use, application and transferral of the skills and information at a much higher priority than merely learning it. And you know its working when teachers no longer have to be the drivers of interdisciplinarity, rather students draw the connections between what they learn in different classes and bring their ideas to bear on the problems they want and need to solve.

Two ideas for schools to better structure for lens-driven classes:

  1. Stream students in courses, so that students take a group of courses as a cohort. At SLA, students take English, History and Science as a cohort in 9th through 11th grades, so that students and teachers work with the same group of students all year, thus increasing the likelihood that ideas will resonate across classes.
  2. Use grade-wide themes and essential questions as through-lines for students to come back to that are not specific to one discipline over another. At SLA, the 9th grade theme is Identity, the 10th grade is Systems, and the 11th grade theme is Change.

What are your ideas?