10 Interdisciplinary Teaching Activities and Examples [+ Unit Design Steps]
Typically demanding a spark of creativity coupled with experimentation, interdisciplinary teaching can be an ambitious approach to use in your classroom.
Fortunately, there are activities you can implement relatively easily that deliver research-backed benefits. These include:
- Improved Critical Thinking — Students should improve their analysis abilities by using approaches from different disciplines.
- Better Bias Recognition — To solve a problem that demands an interdisciplinary approach, students must typically use information rooted in a range of perspectives. This can often challenge their pre-existing ideas to help them identify bias in themselves in others.
- Preparation for Future Problems — Using skills and knowledge from different disciplines is practice for solving problems outside school walls.
Framed by a definition and supplemented with unit design steps, below are 10 interdisciplinary teaching activities and examples. To choose ones that suit your schedule, they’re categorized by length.
What Is the Interdisciplinary Approach?
Feel free to skip this section if you’re familiar with the interdisciplinary approach.
If it’s unfamiliar or you want a review, the teaching method is based on presenting issues, themes and problems that — to address or answer — require skills and knowledge from more than one subject. Depending on grade level and your area of expertise, this may involve working with a colleague in a different department to occasionally teach one another’s class.
Regardless, the purpose of this pedagogy is to encourage students to make connections between academic disciplines.
For example, you could task your class with determining why a powerful historical figure made certain decisions. Completing this activity may require insights from politics, economics and sociology, as well as history.
On top of the aforementioned benefits, they will likely build informed and completer understandings of the topics they’re studying.
So, how can you teach using the interdisciplinary approach?
The instruction style typically takes the form of an entire unit, but there are also class-long exercises and short activities you can run. Examples and instructions are below.
Quick and Easy Interdisciplinary Activities
1. News Analysis
Start your class with this minds-on exercise that provides real-world interdisciplinary problems.
To launch the exercise, you must play a news clip that discusses a local, national or international topic. Then, give students a related question to solve either individually or in teams. For example, the clip can be about a store shutting down. Using skills and concepts from different subjects, ask students to determine an ideal new location for it. They can volunteer to present their solutions, answering questions from classmates.
Time: 30 – 45 Minutes
Age Range: 5th Grade and Up
2. Historical Pen Pals
Personalize history class — developing creative writing skills in the process — by dedicating time to this ongoing activity.
Each student takes the role of a historical figure and writes to a classmate about events he or she faced. Drawing on resources such as videos and textbooks, the exercise allows the writer to process content from different and relevant subjects. Let’s say a student takes the role of Galileo Galilei. He or she can write about the polymath’s discoveries, building knowledge of math and other subjects in the process.
Time: 45 Minutes
Age Range: 3rd Grade and Up
3. Math Gym
Combine math and science with physical education by delivering ongoing lessons that explain and explore certain motions.
Let’s say it’s time to practice long jumps. You can briefly delve into physics and body mechanics, using a spring to illustrate the downward application of force. Then, students can exercise their math skills by estimating and measuring how far they jumped. These demonstrations and activities can also supplement lessons about lifting, throwing and other actions — potentially interesting students who don’t enjoy gym.
Time: 15 – 30 Minutes
Age Range: 3rd – 8th Grade
Class-Long Interdisciplinary Exercises
4. World Traveller
Let students plan vacations, building research skills while touching on core subjects.
You need to designate time for independent study in a library or computer room, as students work to create week-long travel itineraries to their ideal destinations. The product should, for example, include information about:
- Landmarks and their historical significances
- Popular foods, dishes and the predominant cuisine
- Languages or dialects spoken in the area or country
- Cultural events that take place in the area or country
This interdisciplinary activity lends itself to second-language classes. For example, students could write itineraries in French for a trip to Paris or Montréal. To wrap up the exercise, you can explore some destinations with your class using technology such as Google Earth.
Time: One – Three Classes
Age Range: 4th – 6th Grade
5. Leaning Tower
Bolster the last activity — delving into more subjects — by asking students to examine one of Italy’s famous landmarks.
A mainstay interdisciplinary activity for some teachers, this exercise focuses on independent research into the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Specifically, it can involve:
- Investigating the physics or structure of the tower, determining if or when it will fall
- Exploring the tower’s history and cultural significance to Pisa and Tuscany
- Developing an itinerary for a trip to Pisa, similar to the last activity
- Setting a budget for the trip
For lower grades, you can divide the activity into distinct exercises and allow students to work in groups. For higher grades, you can assign this as an in-class project for students to tackle either individually or in pairs.
Time: One – Three Classes
Age Range: 6th Grade and Up
Touch on business, philosophy and social studies with this introspective activity.
The exercise starts by dividing your students into small groups and classroom into three stations. Each group has tokens totaling $1,000, which they must choose to spend at the stations. Each station has a unique category of cards you’ve pre-made, representing a distinct incentive. An economic incentive could be to get faster transportation to school for $150, whereas a social incentive could be to host a party for $200. A moral incentive could be to make a charity donation for $100. Once every group has spent $1,000, tally the purchases to see which station sold the most incentives.
This opens the door to two reflection exercises. First, as a class, discuss how each group spent its money. Second, ask each student to write about why he or she wanted specific incentives.
Time: One Class
Age Range: 4th Grade and Up
Interdisciplinary Unit Examples
7. Field Study
Introduce new learning environments by using an outdoor field study as the basis for a short unit.
Like any unit that uses an interdisciplinary approach, it must be rooted in an organizing centre — a defined focus or purpose, which will be further explained in this article’s next section. For example, the field study can concentrate on finding local bugs and animals. Then, you can base your unit on exploring a specific theme related to wildlife. Students could:
- Read and evaluate relevant poetry
- Write and submit profiles about wildlife they spotted
- Watch and discuss documentaries about animals, such as Planet Earth
- Research and deliver presentations about how certain environments sustain wildlife
To launch the in-class part of the unit, you can hold a class-wide discussion about how the field study connected with past lessons. Perfect for gratifying outdoorsy students.
Time: One to Two Weeks
Age Range: 3rd Grade and Up
8. All About Weather
Connect science with social studies by presenting a unit that explores the impact of weather.
Many elementary science curricula have units about weather and atmosphere, which you can supplement by studying how they affect societies. For example, examine diverse regions and countries, looking into how climate influences labour, agriculture and cultural practices. Students can deliver products that depict how weather has historically shaped life and ecology in the area.
Time: One to Two Weeks
Age Range: 4th Grade and Up
9. More than a “Just” Book
Make language arts class more memorable by examining a book’s underlying contexts, running engaging exercises while reading it.
Each book lends itself to unique interdisciplinary activities. Start by dissecting the setting. For example, if it takes place several centuries ago, students can recreate the era’s scientific breakthroughs by making small windmills or simple telescopes. A book’s theme can also draw on different subjects. Let’s say you’re reading George Orwell. You can set up learning stations that teach political ideologies. For a light-hearted approach, students can re-enact scenes from dialogue-heavy novels, putting themselves in characters’ shoes. Who knew English class could be so versatile?
Time: Two Weeks or Longer
Age Range: 4th Grade and Up
10. Study-Free Test Preparation
Prepare your students for an upcoming exam or standardized test by exploring how to prepare aside from studying, giving them methods to use throughout their academic careers.
Regardless of specific structure, this unit’s lessons and activities should be based on one guiding question or organizing centre: “As well as studying, what are the best ways to prepare oneself for an upcoming test?” You can focus on stress, sleep, nutrition, active listening and other factors that influence performance. To culminate the unit, each student can give a research-backed presentation about a study-free preparation tactic.
Time: One Week or Longer
Age Range: 5th Grade and Up
How to Design Interdisciplinary Units in 5 Steps
There’s more to creating an original interdisciplinary unit than running activities like the ones listed above.
Here are five steps to ensure you effectively plan, and smoothly run, the unit:
1. Assess Your Students and Setting
Analyzing your environment and students’ diverse learning styles will help you customize a unit to meet their needs and interests.
For example, you could determine the bulk of your class struggles to contextualize many math skills. This insight can encourage you to make interdisciplinary lessons about applying math to social and political issues.
To learn more about your students, look into or reflect upon their:
- Engagement levels during different lessons
- Abilities to work by themselves and in groups
- Progression throughout the year or past years
To evaluate the classroom environment, consider if:
- Involving other teachers is needed or possible
- Dedicating enough time and resources to the unit is feasible
- Expanding learning locations by pursuing field trips or outdoor studies is needed
A proper assessment will reveal what you can and should do.
2. Create an Organizing Centre
Running an interdisciplinary unit without an organizing centre is like assigning a project without instructions.
The organizing centre is the overarching focus. All of your activities and lessons must relate to it. And all the approaches and subjects students use will connect with it.
Let’s use the War of 1812 as an example. Organizing centres can take the form of:
- Topics — Upper Canadian activity throughout the war.
- Issues — Are lessons from the war relevant today?
- Themes — Strife between communities.
- Works — Primary documents about the Surrender of Detroit.
- Problems — What can we do to prevent future conflicts between North American countries?
With an organizing centre decided, you’ll have an easier time focusing throughout the next step.
3. Develop Essential Questions
Like a mind map to a writer, students need help applying ideas and subjects to an organizing centre. That’s where essential questions come in.
When facing a new activity, students should be able to reference its underlying essential question and — after giving some thought — understand how it applies to the organizing centre. Let’s return to the War of 1812 as an example. An essential question may involve determining five long-term causes of conflict.
Each essential question should be:
- Somewhat complicated, encouraging students to divide it into simpler problems
- Rooted in concepts that are clearly applicable across subjects
- Completable within the allotted time frame
- Relevant and interesting to students
By framing and contextualizing your organizing centre with essential essentials, students should make natural connections between skills and disciplines.
4. Plan and Run Activities
Here’s the fun part. It’s time to make and deliver exercises that tie into specific essential questions.
Each exercise or lesson should introduce or reinforce ideas and skills, borrowing from different subjects to indicate the importance of combining disciplines.
To address the aforementioned essential question about conflict causes, you could set up learning stations. Each one could teach students about issues — political, economic, sociological and more — that amount to tension between groups.
Like any lesson or unit plan, vary activity types to raise engagement levels and give students chances to reflect on content and their work.
5. Review Student Performance and the Unit Itself
As you use the interdisciplinary approach and the unit concludes, assess students and activities.
This is not only an exercise in giving feedback to your class, but informing future interdisciplinary lessons.
To review student performance, consider evaluating:
- Critical thinking
To review the interdisciplinary unit itself, consider reflecting upon:
- Student engagement
- Connections with different subjects
- Effectiveness of the organizing centre
- Relevancy and applicability of essential questions
If the reviews are positive, you can start planning your next interdisciplinary unit.
Final Thoughts About the Interdisciplinary Approach
Your students may appreciate subjects they disliked after participating in interdisciplinary units, lessons or activities.
That’s because they learned how skills and concepts relate to disciplines they enjoy. Coupled with time to practice those skills and use those concepts, you should see positive results across classes.
Engaged students, happy teacher.
Interdisciplinary teaching strategies have some significant overlap with a number of other pedagogical approaches. Consider learning about more teaching strategies to get inspiration and enrich your pedagogical toolkit!
- Active learning strategies position students at the center of the learning process, enriching the classroom experience and boosting engagement.
- As opposed to traditional learning activities, experiential learning activities build knowledge and skills through direct experience.
- Project-based learning uses an open-ended approach in which students work alone or collectively to producean engaging, intricate curriculum-related questions or challengse.
- Inquiry-based learning is subdivided into four categories, all of which promote the importance of your students’ development questions, ideas and analyses.
- Adaptive learning focuses on changing — or “adapting” — learning content for students on an individual basis, particularly with the help of technology.
>>Create or log into your teacher account on Prodigy— a free, adaptive math game that adjusts content to accommodate player trouble spots and learning speeds. Aligned to US and Canadian curricula, it’s loved by more than 500,000 teachers and 16 million students.