Updated: Jul 29, 2020
THE TRANSDISCIPLINARITY TANGLE
If you teach or lead in an IB PYP school, the chances are there is pressure on you to be transdisciplinary. You likely feel that it is is high up on your agenda. You view transdisciplinarity as a sophisticated, trendy form of integration. You find yourself in conversation scoffing 'thematic approaches' and insisting 'integration should always being authentic'. However, explaining how transdisciplinarity differs from other forms of integration is more challenging and perhaps you are not completely sure if you are doing it right. If any of this rings true - read on. I'm now finally at peace with transdisciplinarity - I'm untangled.
AGREE AS A SCHOOL HOW YOU INTEGRATE
Put simply there are four main ways to integrate
INVESTIGATE A SHARED CONCEPT: E.g. uncover the concept of fractions through music, (e.g. beats in a bar, quarter notes) at the same time you are investigating fractions during mathematics. Or investigate the concept of persuasion through personal & social education (e.g. peer pressure or internet grooming) and at the same time investigate how music persuades us.
Students at Tokyo International School investigating a shared concept
APPLY LEARNING TO FIND OUT: E.g. Use literacy (discussion, inference, note-taking skills) or mathematics (e.g. counting, measuring, surveying skills) or science (observing, fair testing, sampling skills) to investigate another subject or unit of inquiry.
APPLY LEARNING TO SORT OUT e.g. Using your writing proficiency to summarize your findings, using mathematical data handling to present your findings or representing your understanding through dance or visual art.
APPLY LEARNING TO TAKE ACTION Applying what you have learned to a real life purpose you are invested in and have ownership of. E.g. using your skill of persuasive writing to persuade your parents to turn up to Sports Day, debating with your principal about the gender stereotype colours currently featured in the student toilets.
Students at Tokyo international school applying learning to find out, sort out, and to take action.
AGREE AS A SCHOOL WHY YOU INTEGRATE
Put simply, there are three reasons to integrate
ENHANCE LEARNING It helps students make connections between concepts. If they learn about rhythm in poetry, and rhythm appears again in their physical education (dance) or music lesson, they make a connection! If they learn how to handle data during mathematics and they use this purposefully thereafter in other subjects (or in the world outside the classroom), it provides meaning, purpose and is therefore motivating. This aids learning.
PREPARATION FOR LIFE The real world is transdiciplinary. In the big, wide, world students will have to draw upon their knowledge from disciplines.
EFFICIENCY It allows teachers to 'kill two birds with one stone' reinforce one another's learning, creates space in the schedule and thus makes learning more efficient.
However, if at any point your integration is not enhancing learning, or the collaboration and preparation involved is making you inefficient - stop or slow down - you are missing the point.
LAY TERMINOLOGY TO REST
I've seen the circles. I've read up, pondered and critiqued; interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary are the same thing. Scholars Nicolescu and Beane would argue otherwise. But they are brainier than I am. Letting it go feels good, and makes no practical difference to your planning and teaching. Worry about global warming instead.
(The magician in the video is my own son)
LOOK OUTSIDE OF THE BOX TO INVESTIGATE SHARED CONCEPTS
Students at UNIS, Hanoi take interest in their programme of inquiry - photo Christopher Frost
There's a general obsession in the PYP with the transdisciplinary programme of inquiry being the sole place for integration. Yet there are so many purposeful opportunities for integration outside the transdisciplinary unit. Investigate symmetry with your art teacher alongside maths in the homeroom. Investigate character traits during your reading, along side child protection lessons or personal and social education. If integration is helping students to make connections and learn, you are allowed to think outside of the programme of inquiry box.
many subjects share the same concepts
Languages share almost all the same concepts and skills, so if you have two 'native' level languages at your school bingo - purposeful, authentic integration ready to go:
Near native level Japanese and Literacy language learners at Tokyo international schools investigate the same concepts, skills and strategies in their English and Japanese classes.
Here is how a transdisciplinary unit it might look in terms of a central idea, related concepts and conceptual understandings from your curriculum. I have additional blog posts describing the practicalities of planning which may be of interest
This is a fictitious unit. Conceptual understandings & the related concepts embedded in the conceptual understandings, need to be age appropriate - based on a school's curriculum. For example, if this were a Grade 2 unit at Tokyo International School the language looks about right, but the child protection concepts and associated conceptual understandings drawn from our curriculum would be unsafe secrets and safe touches - not grooming, manipulation and control.
WHEN INVESTIGATING A SHARED CONCEPT
MAKE SURE THE SUBJECTS REALLY DO SHARE IT
A shared concept means you would learn 'about' that concept in both subjects. You would do this even if the subject was taught stand alone. For example students likely learn about shape and symmetry in gymnastics, art, and mathematics, including when our teachers teach them in isolation. So these concepts are shared between subjects. If unsure ask yourself this question: Is 'insert concept' featured in our 'insert subject' curriculum? If it is - and you can point to it - great. Now check another subject.
People sometimes confuse this. They think if they are teaching recycling or sustainability in social studies then they can use recycled materials in physical education. They think this entails investigating a shared concept. If you open your physical education curriculum you would find, collaboration, defense, endurance, balance but not sustainability. So sustainability in not a shared concept between social studies and physical education.
Don't get me wrong, that doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't use recycled materials in physical education. Is is just that this is not investigating a shared concept. The problem arises when you compromise your own subject curriculum for transdisciplinarity's sake. Remember the aim is not transdisciplinarity, the aim itself is learning!
WHEN INVESTIGATING A SHARED CONCEPT
MAKE SURE THE CONCEPT IS NOT TOO BROAD
Just because the word (the concept) appears in more than one subject curriculum document does not mean it is worth pursuing as a shared concept. Concept based learning expert Lynn Erickson sums this up beautifully. Only pursue it if it is benefitting learning.
WHEN INTEGRATING LEARNING TO FIND OUT SOMETHING OR SORT OUT UNDERSTANDING, DON'T OBSESS WITH THE TRANSDISCIPLINARY UNIT OF INQUIRY
Remember why we apply our learning (02) 'it provides meaning, purpose and is therefore motivating'. Reading and writing about your unit of inquiry is a purposeful, application of what you have learned in literacy. It can 'make learning more efficient'. However, writing an invitation to Granny for the school musical may be even more meaningful and motivating to the child. It may also be efficient use of time. Remember too, we have a new PYP boss in town: 'agency'. Agency is at odds with transdisciplarity in this sense. Agency argues that students should be reading and writing about what they chose. Transdisciplinarity argues they should be reading and writing about the unit of inquiry. The answer is probably not one or the other but a bit of both - stay chilled.
INTEGRATE APPROACHES TO LEARNING OR APPROACHES TO TEACHING
Integration does not need to focus on subject content - what we learn. It can also be how we learn. You may be learning completely disparate content in mathematics, science and art, but you can still focus on the same learning-to-learn skills to knit things together. Or incorporate the same thinking routines or learning structures across the curriculum. This reinforces learning and makes learning more efficient.
Students during a mathematics lesson investigate 'collaboration' a learning-to-learn concept and skill. Their teachers remind them where collaboration has been a recent focus across the curriculum including their reading workshop lessons.
LET THE EARLY YEARS BE WITH THEIR THEMATIC PROJECTS
The term 'thematic' has been looked on with distain in PYP circles over the years. But in the early years, there is nothing more natural and exciting as a topic or project as a means of knitting together a unit and sparking curiosity and inquiry. There is nothing (necessarily) conceptual about a pond, supermarket or a garden as a theme for a unit, but such projects are absolutely appropriate in the early years. This is an age when the most important thing in education is instilling a love of learning, learning dispositions including their natural curiosity. Lilian Katz in the red (early) version of the Reggio book - Hundred Languages of Children makes a beautiful point, she mentions that the sorts of understandings our youngest learners construct they would come to understand regardless by the time they are 7 years old: just by being alive!
TAKE YOUR TIME WITH THE TRANSDISCIPLINARY TANGLE
(The 'teacher' in this video frantically trying to tackle transdisciplinarity is my own son)
The IB is all about quality learning. Transdisciplinarity takes time. The organization wants commitment from its schools to transdisciplinarity. Commitment does not mean it has to happen immediately. Establish a shared vision, a shared understanding, a timeline and facilitate collaboration and discussion. Year after year, with reflection and action your transdisciplinary practice will develop and shine. Resist the pressure to move too fast and choke on the transdisciplinary tangle.
If you have a different opinion or something to add please leave a comment. If you found this post thought provoking please share it share this on social media to keep the conversation going. All children featured in video have signed permission from their parents to be used for educational purposes. If anyone wishes to use this - or part of this - blog post, please feel free. A brief mention of the author would be appreciated.
Deputy Head of School
Tokyo International School
Clipart of tangled teacher from http://cliparts101.com/free_clipart