In this column, published in the New York Times on February 5, 1995, Al Shanker argues that, although interdisciplinary units can be done well, there is value in the deep knowledge that the disciplines of history and math and science and literature can offer.
Interdisciplinary learning is a big educational fact these days, and it's no wonder. It's a very attractive idea. The world is not divided into disciplines so why should school be? Why not integrate what kids learn -- and show them how math and biology and history fit together -- instead of putting these things into separate boxes? A holistic approach, advocates tell us, will make learning far more engaging for students. It will also be more stimulating for teachers, who will be encouraged to make new connections and see things in new ways.
But throwing away disciplinary learning for youngsters who have not yet mastered the disciplines creates serious problems. It constrains what teachers can teach -- and, therefore, what kids can learn -- instead of enlarging it. That's what Kathleen Roth, a science teacher and teacher educator, found when she participated in an integrated science and social studies unit (Roth 1994). The theme of the unit -- 1492 -- was a real grabber, and Roth and her colleagues planned something far more ambitious than learning the names and customs of various native American peoples and, perhaps, how to build a bark house or a canoe. They organized the year-long unit around themes of diversity, change and adaptation, and questions about how the people and land have changed since 1492 and how they might change in the next 500 years. They believed that these themes and questions would be powerful vehicles for teaching and integrating basic concepts in science and social science.
What Roth found was something quite different. The interdisciplinary focus made it difficult for her to teach scientific concepts at all. For example, because the anchor point was 500 years in the past, the kids were pretty much limited to learning from books, and Roth was unable to give them practice in the basic scientific activities of observing things, trying to explain these things and making predictions about their behavior -- as she had done with previous classes. The interdisciplinary approach meant that her students learned less science, not more - some new names and facts but little if anything about how scientists raise questions and resolve them.