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Interdisciplinary Teaching Reinforces Information and Helps Learning

There are perhaps no two subject that seem to be more distant than math and art – in the type of thinking they require and the type of student who thrives in those classes.

But one expert believes that the two can be combined, and he’s part of a movement that thinks such interdisciplinary teaching exposes students to subjects in new ways and improves their understanding and retention of both.

“Both science and art are about converting the invisible to the visible, so they’re a natural fit,” says John De Pillis, a University of California, Riverside (UCR) math professor and author of the book 777 Mathematical Conversation Starters. He maintains that combining math and art classes will help develop better math performance for students, starting as early as elementary school. “Taking numbers off of paper and onto something students can touch and feel makes math significantly more relatable and understandable.”

De Pillis works on the issue with the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), which sees this understanding of math as important for education.
Jim Crowley, executive director of SIAM, says visualization of objects is a prime way mathematicians get insight into the mathematical structures they create, whether geometric objects or a graphs, so it is important for students of math to appreciate art. “Conversely, geometry can inspire art, as is evident in beautiful sculptures inspired by geometric objects,” he said, pointing to the work of American sculptor Helamon Ferguson as an example.

Other experts say that approach should be used in schools when possible to reinforce subject material in various classrooms.

Ulcca Joshi Hansen, associate director of national outreach and community building for Education Reimagined, which advocates for learner-centered learning, says that such teaching improves retention of material and creates higher order and critical thinking which is important for the subject at hand and for success in the future.

“With this sort of teaching you are making more neural connections so that the student is more likely to retain the material and learn it in a more sophisticated way,” she says.

She notes that when schools plan this way – either across a grade level or from grade-to-grade – it benefits teachers, too, in a number of ways: such opportunities for collaboration and communications improve school climate and teacher satisfaction and teachers can see a broader view of what they are teaching and how it fits in the longer term goal for student outcomes.

She also notes that while there is more attention to this type of collaboration, increasing pressure on teachers to raise student performance as measured by standardized tests has moved them away from it.

Ryan Webb, a math and tech teacher at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s High School in Richmond says the approach can be used with a variety of subjects. He says, for instance, his work often overlaps with projects in science, and he and other teachers try to make that connection.

“Even things as simple as illustrating a Pythagorean Theorem proof forces students to take that one extra step beyond memorizing a few variables. Teachers should start small with a simple project, with a low risk of failure,” he says.

At Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, MD, teachers have met in interdisciplinary groups outside of their teams for the subject departments or their grade level. They were charged with discussing the topics they were covering in their classes to make others aware of them so that they could refer to them in their classes when possible. Then teachers met with teachers from other subject areas and discussed ways that they could develop lessons that related to topics in each others’ classes.

Other experts have noted that such learning requires that administrators value it and provide time for teachers to do it – and teachers buy in. It should be explained at staff development sessions and implanted in formal meeting. 

However, some note that teachers can initiate such interdisciplinary efforts by simply communicating with another teacher in a different subject area and planning a bit together to coordinate existing topics and plan new ones together.

Written by Jim Paterson

Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md.