Top Image

You are here: Home / Blog / Interdisciplinarity


created Apr 06, 2016 04:14 PM

by Nancy McTygue

In a recent blog post, I listed six things that history teachers need to know now about the new framework, textbooks, and the possibility of statewide assessments.  It was a short piece that I wrote to summarize some of our answers to questions we’ve been fielding from schools across California in recent weeks.  We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on that post, which has become one of the most popular pages on our website.  At first I was surprised by the popularity of that post, but now I think I understand why – it provided a little clarity in an uncertain time. 

Most folks can describe HSS as it’s been over the last decade – marginalized at the elementary and middle school level, assessed with problematic multiple-choice tests that only seem to measure the impact of economic status and English fluency, and hampered by out of date textbooks and a lack of substantive discipline-specific professional support for teachers.  What people have a hard time describing is what HSS will or should look like in the future.  For example, what, specifically and concretely, is the role of the history teacher in a school seeking to implement the Common Core and English Language Development Standards?  And now that the California Standards Tests are a thing of the past and some state leaders have expressed little interest in new tests, will schools be held accountable for student learning in history-social science?  And if they’re not held accountable, will they actually teach the subject and provide necessary support for its instruction? 

We’ve been immersed in these and other questions as we’ve worked on the new Framework and participated in conversations across the state with educational and disciplinary leaders:  What role does history-social science play in ongoing instructional reform efforts? What are the instructional shifts (to borrow a CCSS phrase) that define quality instruction in history-social science?  What is the appropriate balance between disciplinary focus and interdisciplinary collaboration?  And what about those reform efforts that span multiple disciplines to offer students a more comprehensive and potentially engaging way to learn, such as Career / Technical Education (CTE) or Global Education?

I can’t pretend to have the answers to all of these, at least not in any clear or comprehensive fashion now.  But over the last week, I’ve participated in two events that have helped.  Last Thursday I attended the second day of a two-part Global Education Summit, hosted by the Yolo County Office of Education, and organized by the California Department of Education.  The Summit was designed to bring together teachers, non-profit organizations, and state leaders to discuss both the benefits of and ways to incorporate global education into the traditional K-12 setting.  I learned about a variety of activities designed to improve student understanding of the world, including the use of project-based learning focused on a topic of global importance and student interest, the incorporation of cultural learning into world language classes, and career / technical programs that engaged students in research about topics of global importance.

Earlier this week, I attended a meeting in Chicago hosted by the Library of Congress (we are part of the Library’s Teaching with Primary Sources consortium), where Library leaders shared their goal of “infiltrating” non-social studies departments to expand the use of primary sources into science, the arts, and other classes.  Part of our discussion focused on the power of student research, which our program manager described as the “…culmination of student learning,” as it allows children to “…take control of their learning.”  We talked about a variety of interdisciplinary efforts that envisioned primary sources, centered in an inquiry-based instructional model.

Although these two meetings focused on different topics, they shared a singular emphasis on improving the quality of classroom instruction through an interdisciplinary inquiry-based approach that leveraged student interest in a variety of real-world applications.  The message I heard from both of them is that as we seek to redefine what history-social science means in this new age, we need to think beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries and to encourage students to engage in their own substantive inquiries.

My initial response to a cross-disciplinary inquiry approach is cautious support. Since our inception, we’ve emphasized the importance of inquiry, as we believe it most closely mirrors the process of historical investigation, engages students, and promotes critical thinking and analysis.  Working across disciplines is helpful as well, as problems and projects in the world outside of our classrooms rarely fit in narrow disciplinary boxes.  Conflict in the Middle East, for example, is not just the result of current political relations; the problem is precisely so difficult because it has so many causes – historical, geographic and environmental, religious and cultural – to name a few.  Moreover, a cross-disciplinary approach can often help students focus on what is significant and what is not.  For example, understanding just how transformative the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions were requires students to master more than a list of inventions; they need to understand how these changes fundamentally impacted how people worked, how family structure and relations were altered, and how these changes strengthened a nation’s capacity to compete, defend itself, and feed its citizens. 

I think it’s important to remember, however, the equal value of a singular disciplinary focus.  As the California Subject Matter Projects have long noted, the subject matters.  Research study after research study have demonstrated the need for teachers who understand both the content they teach and the discipline in which that content is situated.  While we can draw connections with science, for example, we must at the same time recognize and point out to our students that the disciplines are different.  We both rely on evidence, for example, but the nature and validity of that evidence are measured on vastly different metrics.  Interpretations of the past in history are not equivalent to determining causality through a scientific experiment.  If, in our rush to embrace a cross-disciplinary model, we forget these distinctions, student learning in both subjects and their ability to determine overall significance will suffer.

We must also be careful to avoid presentism, the ahistorical practice of interpreting the past through a modern perspective, in our efforts to connect our study of the past with events today.  Not every event, action, or actor in today’s world has an analog in the past.  Seeking to make connections where they don’t exist distorts student understanding of both history and the modern world in which we live.  Moreover, “presentism, taken to its worst,” UCLA Historian Lynn Hunt wrote in 2002, “… encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation.”

So to return to the initial question of what history-social science can or should look in these uncertain times, I would agree with those who suggest an interdisciplinary focus that incorporates an inquiry model of instruction offers at least part of the answer, as long as we construct our lessons with careful attention to the needs of individual disciplines and absent the dangers of presentism.  Interdisciplinarity is, of course, not the only piece in this instructional puzzle.  Our collective challenge in the months and years to come is to articulate what else we need to do to improve student learning, literacy, and engagement.