6 ways to make a success of multi-disciplinary learning

Merging topics into single lessons can be tricky but, with the right planning, it can work wonders, says this international teacher

Gregory Adam

Learning behaviours: How can we teach children how to learn?

I recently published a research paper with the Journal Of Inquiry Based Activities on the topic of multi-disciplinary learning (MDL), where I combined English, geography and technology within one unit of work

The students had to explore digital and authentic maps to learn what the seven continents were and then create their own maps based on this. All 24 students who took part in the activity met the learning goals and their feedback was positive.

Among the plethora of things I learned through this process, there were six key learning points that should help any teacher who teaches MDL – or wants to give it a go.

1. Give students a clear question to answer

There is a wide range of ways to approach inquiry. My personal favourite is structured inquiry (where we give the students steps to success as opposed to free rein), although guided inquiry is nice, too (the students don’t get given the steps).

Both of these require us to give the students a question to answer. The reason this is useful is that it gives the students a target to aim for and keeps them on track.

This is particularly useful in MDL as, when there are many topics being bundled together, it can be easy wander aimlessly around information and not really take anything away. This is why I always had the key questions to return to: “What are the 7 continents and where are they on a map?”

2. Encourage communication

MDL brings together multiple topics and can be confusing if students do not have a chance to ask questions of the teacher and also of each other.

As such, collaboration is key. Students can bounce ideas off each other, learn together and share their observations. This also gives them the chance to test out ideas and be wrong in a safe way.

Something that works well for me is when a student asks me a question. If I know that another student in the class knows the answer, I simply direct the asker to the student who knows. Another way is to say to the student: “Go and ask five friends: if none of them knows, we can find out together.” This also cultivates an inquisitive classroom.

3. Provide active support

Just because it is a student-led lesson and the children are finding things out themselves, it doesn’t mean we can sit at our desk marking books for an hour.

A great way to support the students is to move around the classroom and ask them questions to deepen their learning and push them a bit further.

For example, in the activity I mention at the start, I moved around the classroom asking questions like: “What continents have you found?” and “What countries are in that continent?”

You can also use your questions to link in the other topics. A good question for this lesson was: “What type of animals do you think live here?” That would have instigated thoughts about habitats and adaptation, which was embedded in our next topic.

4. Use creative assessments

Rather than throwing a multiple-choice quiz at the students, you can get them to actually create something. I had them make their own maps and I assessed them by counting the number of continents in the right place. This was done using map templates and continent cutouts, and they then needed to organise them in the right places and stick them down.

From there, I was also able to set an extension task to create their own sentences based on their maps, One student wrote “Brazil is in South America”, pushing themselves beyond the main learning objective and answering the question provided more deeply.

This also gave the students a further opportunity to integrate literacy skills. 

5. Use authentic materials

I originally worked as an English language teacher and learned the importance of using realia – where authentic objects from real life are used to teach a specific concept – in the classroom.

This translates well to an MDL lesson, as there are plenty of authentic materials you can use. In my lesson, I used real maps of the world. In other lessons, I have taken in plants, ice cubes/liquids/water spray.

This adds to the engaging aspect of the lesson and gives the students something physical to explore.

6. Use technology if possible

There are many ways you can do this. If you have access to iPads, you can create QR codes with information embedded in them that students can access.

Or, if you have access to a smartboard, you can provide a series of clickable images using sites like Thinglink. On a more basic level you could use music: I recently played ocean sounds when my students were investigating the ocean habitat.

Whatever you do, by incorporating technology in some way, you help to add another facet to pupils’ learning from the topic.

Overall, MDL has much to recommend it as a teaching method. It can be hard to get it right but the feedback I have had from students has been overwhelmingly positive.

They enjoy the lessons and I can see they are building their ability to collaborate and explore/research independent from the teacher – a good thing all round.

Gregory Adam is a primary teacher at Nord Anglia Chinese International School in Shanghai. He released his first book last year: Teaching EFL, ESL & EAL. A Practitioner’s Guide

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