Traditional Western schools most often separate learning contents from one another. For example, students may cycle through specified hours of learning Math, then Language Arts, followed by Science, and rounded out with Social Studies.
Students might be learning how to calculate percentages in math, discovering the geographical impact of droughts in science, and analyzing the social effects of the Great Depression in Social Studies while reading Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, which features that period in history. A student’s classes might teach overlapping content without tying the material together.
Imagine how powerful a student’s learning experience could be if teachers coordinated to teach supplemental content simultaneously with their fellow educators. Rather than learning segmented content, students could benefit from learning about multiple aspects of a topic in-depth across their classes.
Below, you will learn some introductory steps to “crisscrossing” your classes to develop interdisciplinary project-based learning in your school.
What is Project-Based Learning?
Project-based learning centers around the idea that students can generate their inquiry into real-world problems, conduct research, design how they want to immerse themselves in potential solutions, and present their findings to an authentic audience.
It is a method that centers on student voice and is more student-led than teacher-led. Project-based learning prepares students to tackle challenges beyond the classroom, preparing them to be societal leaders and innovators.
Where Do I Begin?
Start with the basics! Starting on a foundational level is essential in developing quality project-based learning units. Before introducing the idea to your class, coordinate with your professional learning community and grade-level teachers to discuss how your units can align with and supplement the learning in the others.
Students can develop a project and use the information learned in any class to enhance their understanding, solution, and design.
Tip #1: List some events or issues your students, school, or community face.
Tip #2: Connect it to your curriculum standards. Talk to other teachers to try to connect it with theirs as well.
Tip #3: Clarify the “why” of the project – what are the students hoping to achieve?
Tip #4: Identify how students will use their data and writing to fulfill a larger purpose (advocating to community members, presenting a proposal, etc.).
Tip #5: Determine the format for the final product (digital infographic, poster board, mural, etc.).
What Does It Look Like?
Applying project-based learning to what matters most to your students will look different from classroom to classroom, student to student. However, the process by which students curate an answer to their questions will resemble a similar pattern. Below are some basic steps you can take to create a project-based unit of learning in your classroom.
Step 1: Get your students excited about topics they are interested in. Generating ideas could mean creating a survey of what matters most, launching with a Newsela text set of current event articles, having students answer an anticipation survey, engaging in a brainstorming session, and more.
Step 2: Students conduct background research on their topic. Whether your students are working individually, in pairs, or small groups, offer them safe and school-based scholarly sources they can use to learn everything they need to know about their selected topic.
Step 3: Students investigate potential solutions or answers for their question or challenge. The investigation step is when students dig into analytical details regarding realistic solutions to problems. Watch students become creative and innovative in this particular step of the process.
Step 4: Analyze, display, and present results. Students can showcase what they have learned and the solutions they have found to an authentic audience! They can design a presentation through any number of physical or digital means and practice the skill of public speaking. For an audience, students might present to fellow students, teachers, and administrators within the school, the local school board, or other community members and stakeholders.
Step 5: Use the results to write persuasive arguments. Students can take action on the solution they designed for a real-world problem by convincing their authentic audience to believe in, agree with, or invest in their idea to improve on something that matters to them. Students can see themselves as agents of change as they successfully impact their community.
Sample Interdisciplinary Project-Based Learning Unit
Here is an example of how one interdisciplinary Math/ELA Project-Based Learning Unit uses the format of the tips and steps listed above. Sixth-grade students decided that they wanted a say in the rewards offered to students by the PBIS team to incentivize their classmates to make progress academically and behaviorally contribute to a positive school environment.
This group brainstormed a list of an improved set of incentives, surveyed sixth-grade students, collected the information, analyzed the results, and presented their findings to an authentic audience of stakeholders who had the power to make the changes within the school.
List: Students developed a list of what they wanted to improve in our school.
Connect: The graphing format is connected to math curriculum standards, while the informational/persuasive writing connects to ELA standards.
Why: To allow students to use their voices and make effective changes in their community.
How: Presented their school improvement plan to the school administration and the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports team.
Format: Students shared data in a ThingLink presentation and wrote a persuasive text using data-based information.
The data-backed persuasive arguments of this group of students worked, and the school administration and PBIS team made the recommendations and adjustments to accommodate the requests of how PBIS could improve within the school.
Like all good ideas, there are potential obstacles to success in interdisciplinary project-based learning. Some of these challenges involve timing, technology, and redundancy. Fortunately, each of these potential barriers can be overcome by intentional coordination and planning.
Timing: Sometimes, curriculum units move at a different pace than expected. Coordinate the timing of your units with your cross-curricular colleagues to ensure that you will be teaching supplementary content simultaneously. Make sure to communicate if anybody’s pace needs to adjust for the benefit of student projects.
Technology: Students love to create digitally! Some digital platforms, however, require a paid subscription to access all features students will want to use to curate and present their data. Before you offer a platform as an option, check to see what features are available for your students at a low cost.
Redundancy: Challenge your students to create unique projects. Presenting project ideas and data to community members is powerful and effective. Presenting the same topic to community members over and over, with incongruous data depending on who was polled, sends mixed messages about the importance of the project content.
Watch your students thrive
Interdisciplinary project-based learning increases student investment in their learning because they choose material that matters to them and allows them a platform to create change in their community. The design of interdisciplinary projects also increases student accountability.
Since the same project will count as a grade across multiple classes, it is higher stakes for the student to remain dedicated to their studies and to fulfill the project requirements with diligence. Finally, project-based learning empowers students to use their voices while taking a vested interest in their community, increasing empathy and awareness of those around them.
The self-confidence, initiative, and care you will see your students develop through interdisciplinary project-based learning will be invaluable!
Q: What if my students struggle to find a topic that interests them?
A: Develop a pre-brainstormed list that you can provide to students who struggle to generate ideas. Allow them to select from the list or use the list to inspire their ideas!
Q: What if my students suggest an unrealistic solution to a problem?
A: Dreaming big is great, but sometimes students need guidance in remembering what can be accomplished in the context of available resources and finances. As a teacher, you can gently coach your students by letting them know the parameters of what they can ask or develop as a solution.
Q: Many of my students feel nervous about presenting to stakeholders. How can I help them prepare?
A: One way to prepare for a presentation is to have the students practice in front of the class through a mock presentation! Have the rest of the students pay close attention to the presentation and prepare to ask questions the presenters might hear during the actual presentation. Students can give positive feedback and suggestions on how to make their presentation even better!