Taking on the Challenges of Interdisciplinary Learning (Updated 2018)

Reflections: April 2018

Since the original post in early 2016, we’ve made some progress, experienced some great successes and uncovered some further challenges. Enthusiasm is building behind Interdisciplinary Units (IDU’s), though there is still work to be done. I’ve updated the flowchart below to show some other “ways in” to IDU planning. The pdf version has live links to supporting documents.

Some successes

Although we’re still working towards solid IDU’s in all grade levels, there are some which are working well. In MYP3, the “Keen Machines” IDU evolved from a “nifty lifter” design challenge into a more authentic Design-Science connection, generating mechanical solutions to client-based problems around the school, with many creative products. Three years in, this is already ready for the next step in its development, and the teaching team there have done a great job. This quickly spun off into more client-driven Design projects, including a project to redesign school spaces.

Another great example in MYP4 connects LangLit with I&S. Evolving from a long-standing history unit (pre-MYP authorisation, I take no credit at all), involving a Hiroshima trip and bomb-survivor guest-speaker, this connects historical contexts and Hersey’s book. It resulted this year in “A Noiseless Flash” an exhibition of responses to the bomb, empowered by a month of interactions with a professional curator artist-in-residence and attended by the survivor. This authentic, experience-driven unit led to some amazing outcomes, and some participating students told me that her presence at the exhibition increased the quality of their work; the power of the authentic audience. This is an example of a unit that connects to a significant local and historical context.

These two examples contrast in their use of the coordinator. Although the teachers will lead the way in designing all IDU’s, I was more hands-on in the design of the Keen Machines unit, whereas in the Hiroshima unit my role has been “clear (and stay out of) the way” (they would be doing this anyway).

In both cases I am inspired by the passion of the contributing teachers. And in both cases, the coordinator role has included minimising as much administrivia for teachers as possible. Before I leave CA this summer, I need to make sure that the work these teachers have completed is faithfully captured in ATLAS – something I’ll do in conference with them.

Some Challenges

The biggest challenge to successful IDU implementation is the weight of documentation that seems to be expected; the reason for the creation of the flowchart below. Similarly, we are reluctant to formally assess the students’ work and put it on a report card – we’d rather reduce the number of grades given to students. We are experimenting with alternative ways to capture student reflection against the IDU criteria, outlined below, and some EdTech solutions might help.

Another challenge is for partial participation subjects – such as language and arts options – and how they can effectively engage with IDU’s. Two workarounds so far have been to use the subject expertise of some members of a team to support others, and to work towards some smaller “satellite” IDU’s in grade-levels that already have a strong “everyone in” unit. There is still some work to be done here.

Another challenge in IDU implementation is sustainability of projects. With a public showcase of products, it becomes quickly apparent to the upcoming classes what “success” looks like. The challenge of keeping it fresh.

Future Developments

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 14.04.51
Developing a new IDU

As momentum gains behind IDU’s, the enthusiasm to connect subjects and build new units increases. In recent meetings, we’ve used Spiderweb discussions (tracked using Equity Maps as a technoid for teachers), to emerge new units. Moving from this into the flowchart helps keep us off screens and in the conversation, and I’m looking forward to helping develop a new MYP2 unit to connect science, PHE and food design; a slightly-asynchronous experience based around nutrition, data analysis and sustainable development.

As subjects roll through curriculum review, new developments and connections (such as the SDG’s/ Global Goals) can inspire action and design of new IDU’s. As a school working towards Creating a Culture of Thinking, developing IDU’s helps energize the force of Opportunities.

Where once we were planning IDU’s to meet a requirement, I’m now trying to keep up with the requests to help create new experiences. It’s an exciting time for IDU development.


Original Post: January 2016

April 2018: This post is unedited, save for the image.

Here’s a quick post of some work we’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks. Now that the foundations of MYP: Next Chapter are bedded in, with teachers using the guides, working well with the assessment criteria and coming up with some interesting inquiries, it’s time to tackle interdisciplinary units (IDU’s).

Although the school had some IDU’s before, these tended towards more thematic connections; the publication of the IB’s”Fostering interdisciplinary teaching and learning in the MYP guide demands a higher level of sophistication and planning, as well as the use of a separate set of assessment criteria. In the interim period before MYP:NC, we disconnected a few IDU’s to focus on strengthening disciplinary practices, so that when we re-connected, they would be stronger and more authentic to those involved. As a result, more teachers are asking for ways to connect, some of the IDU ideas are evolving and becoming more adventurous and a keen group of teachers have attended (or are about to attend) IDU workshops.

The challenge as coordinator? How to manage and encourage this, whilst ensuring the energy remains in the connections without being diminished by the added burden of a new planner, criteria and restrictions. My solution (for now) is to take on the formal documentation of the new IDU’s and build some support resources, so that the teachers can get on with it. In these prototyping years for the new IDU’s there will be plenty to test and evaluate. One of the key differences in this approach compared to our normal unit planning is that I manage the IDU ATLAS planners: while teachers discuss and plan together, I observe, question and clarify and record the results into the planner. The planner itself won’t be ‘complete’ until at least the second cycle through as we reflect and tinker, but at least we get to test the unit in ‘beta mode’ and see how it grows.

I’ve tried to capture the flow of the IDU in this poster (updated 2018): a visual supplement to the IDU guide that will help us through the process and reduce the amount of pages that teachers need to read. As usual, it’s made in GoogleDrawings, so that I can embed, refine and include links where needed. I’d love to read your feedback in the comments below or on Twitter.

IDU Planning @sjtylr
A sample flowchart for working through the IDU process, distilled from “Fostering interdisciplinary teaching & learning” and MYP Coordinator Support Materials. Click to download as pdf, with active links. Updated April 2018.


Postscript: A Workflow for Managing IDU Reflections

Click to view

Collecting reliable and useful IDU assessment information and data can be a beast, but here’s a system we tried, with limited success. Still a work in progress, but it might work for you.

It’s based on capturing key questions in google forms, so that teachers can sort and view easily and work together on assessment. It also uses AutoCrat (a mail-merger) to share the students’ own data back to them as a GoogleDoc, to be used on their blogs.

It took some setting up, but in our experiment of assessing the IDU, it reduced the burden of reflection on students (after a really cool, active project). We need to test this again.

Edit 2018: We have yet to decide how to best “report achievement” against the IDU criteria, beyond the physical showcases of products and student learning. I am anxious of creating another grade that might detract from the power of some really inspiring projects.


Footnote: The Evidence for Interdisciplinary Learning


As part of putting this together, I got sucked into the rabbit-hole of references and evidence. Aside from being enjoyable and challenging, IDU’s can help students’ reflective skills, put learning into authentic contexts and help us address those oh-so-tricky-to-teach transfer skills.

If you’re interested, here is a hyperlinked version of the references section from “Fostering interdisciplinary teaching and learning in the MYP“. It might save you some time.
[Links added by Stephen]

Beane, JA. 1995. “Introduction: What is a coherent curriculum?” In JA Beane (ed) Toward A Coherent Curriculum. Alexandria, Virginia, USA. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Pp 1–14.

Boix-Mansilla, V. 2010. MYP guide to interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Cardiff, UK. IB Publishing.

Boix Mansilla, Verónica & Gardner, Howard (2008). Disciplining the mind. Educational Leadership, 65(5), 14-19. [added from Harvard PZ]

Boix-Mansilla, V and Gardner, H. 2007. “From teaching globalization to nurturing global consciousness”. In M Suárez-Orozco (ed),Learning in the Global Era: International Perspectives on Globalization and Education. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, USA. University of California Press. Pp 47–66.

Boix-Mansilla, V, Miller, WC and Gardner, H. 2000. “On disciplinary lenses and interdisciplinary work.” In S Wineburg and P Grossman (eds), Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Challenges to Implementation. New York, New York, USA. Teachers College Press. Pp 17–38.

Choi, BCK and Pak, A. 2006. “Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in health research, services, education and policy: 1. Definitions, objectives, and evidence of effectiveness”. Clinical and Investigative Medicine. Vol 29, number 6. Pp 351–364.

Daly, K, Brown, G and McGowan, C. 2012. Curriculum integration in the IB Middle Years Programme: Literature Review. Cardiff, UK. IB Publishing.

Erickson, L. 2006. Concept- Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom. Thousand Oaks, California, USA. Corwin Press. [IB Position Paper summary here]

International Baccalaureate. 2010. The Primary Years Programme as a model of transdisciplinary learning. Cardiff, UK. IB Publishing.

Rényi J. 2000. “Hunting the quark: Interdisciplinary curriculum in public schools”. In S Wineburg and P Grossman (eds), Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Challenges to Implementation. New York, New York, USA. Teachers College Press. Pp 40–53.

Wineburg, S. and Grossman, P (eds). 2000. Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Challenges to Implementation. New York, New York, USA. Teachers College Press.


Other interesting resources



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7 responses to “Taking on the Challenges of Interdisciplinary Learning (Updated 2018)”

  1. Jane Altemen Avatar
    Jane Altemen

    Thank you for sharing your labours down that rabbit hole Stephen!
    #murphy’s law – the one I wanted to read requires I pay a subscription to access it

  2. Julie Middlebrook Avatar
    Julie Middlebrook

    Stephen, I love the graphic for IDU! Very helpful!!. I wondered though about what you had written for criterion B. When I look at the objective it talks about synthesizing understanding. So I think that goes back to the statement of inquiry and the interdisciplinary understanding that we want students to walk away with at the end of the unit. I wonder if the focus on students “leaving new things” can lead to keeping things on a more facial level instead of conceptual?

    1. Stephen Avatar

      Hi Julie – thanks for the comment! Perhaps I need to word that part more appropriately; the intention with B being the synthesis of new ideas, knowledge or perspectives that could only have come through the connection (and not in isolation). Thanks for the feedback!

      1. Diane Smith Avatar

        Hi Stephen,
        Nice! The replacement wording you suggest above aligns well with the BQC feedback re: the purpose of integration and criterion B: “synthesis of new ideas, knowledge or perspectives that could only have come through the connection (and not in isolation).

        We’ve found that thoroughly defining the purpose of integration can be a critical step that is often overlooked. And the key to that explanation is clearly defining how specific, substantive perspectives and content from each subject will contribute to the integrated understanding, and also how students will synthesize those perspectives to demonstrate an understanding that would not have been possible through one subject alone.

        Thanks for all your insight and very practical posts!

      2. Stephen Avatar

        Thanks Diane! Great to have your comment here.

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