The Reflective Educator

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Multidisciplinary projects in schools

It is my experience that we compartmentalize knowledge entirely too often in schools, labelling some ways of learning mathematics, other ways of knowing science, and still other ways of knowing the humanities. We compartmentalize knowledge so much in schools that I believe it leads to what I like to call Sitcom teaching, in which each lesson is a stand alone that does not depend on any other subject areas (or often even the previous lessons in the same class) in order to be learned by students. 

This is a dangerous practice because it leads students to believe that mathematical thinking is somehow incredibly distinct from other types of thinking and to the logical conclusion that they can get by in life without being able to reason mathematically, or that it is even possible to live life without using mathematical reasoning. This is clearly false – the similarity between what we think of as different modes of thinking is much more than the differences. Just thinking of similarities and differences as I have pointed out in the previous sentence, a common activity in the social sciences, is using the basic ideas inherent in mathematical set theory. 

A potential cure for compartmentalization is multidisciplinary learning, wherein the skills, knowledge, and modes of thinking are rejoined together to form whole projects.

Here are some sample multidisciplinary projects:

  • Build a community garden

    In this project, students could learn science as they observe how the plants grow, and be encouraged to experiment with different amounts of light, watering, fertilizer, and soil preparation techniques to see how these variables affect plant growth. Younger students can count out seeds, and work with older children who help them carefully arrange these seeds into rows and columns. Students could learn how to calculate the lengths of shadows during the course of a day, and thus work out where are the best places for Tomatoes in their garden. Students could write letters of invitation to various community organizations to invite them to use the community garden. They could write grant applications to seek funding for their garden and petition local businesses to offer financial support for the garden. They could research how farming practices have changed over time. They could learn about the environmental consequences of our global food supply.

    At the end of the season, they could harvest and cook their own food. They could give away the food to a local food bank. 
     

  • Run a store

    Students could create budgets, order supplies, and keep track of inventory. They could research the health benefits (and problems) associated with various kinds of food. They could write proposals to change inventory selection. They could read about the manufacturing process for the goods in their store, and write letters to the manufacturers either requesting more information or a change in harmful practices. They could use their experiences in the store as a background for a short story. They could sell their art work, or books of their poetry. They could donate the proceeds to charity, or use them to buy supplies for their school.


  •  Create an (rock) opera

    Writing musical scores would let students learn more about fractions, sequences, and counting. Students could research different musical styles, and learn more about their culture. Students could create the music, the stage settings, design the costumes, program the lighting sequence, and create the program booklet for the performance night. Students could create multiple storylines and then find ways to bring their ideas together (where possible).

 

Of course, there are a lot of other project ideas not listed here. To implement these in most current school settings, teachers would have to collaborate and work together fairly well, and we might have to set aside some of our standard school schedules. However, we should never let the school schedule have too much control over the kinds of learning activities we do with our students.

What other benefits do you see to this approach? What are the problems with it?

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