Should we be providing Interdisciplinary Studies as its own course?

Recently, our school held its annual 3E Conference – a gathering of educators from several continents, all meeting to discuss ways in which we can further push the boundaries of education and support our students to become energized, engaged and empowered.

The focus of this year’s conference was on personalized learning and strategies for making learning more connected to the lives of our students.

* sidebar, the conference organizers showed an amazing sense of humour branding the conference with the tag line, “This time it’s personal”, and at the same time shouting out to Jaws: The Revenge, one of the ultimate good/bad movies of all time.*

During the course of the conference, I found myself in many conversations regarding the integration of disciplines in order to create more authentic and meaningful learning.

In other words, IDUs.

For those in the MYP community, IDUs (short for interdisciplinary units), are a requirement – one IDU (assessed using the special IDU criteria) per year level, each academic year.

Like so many things in education, IDUs are one of these items that we all philosophically get behind, yet practically, often find difficult to implement (again, it would seem, the enemy may be timetabling).

Finding time to plan, implement and assess an IDU can be a bear – to the point where it is potentially a deterrent to the teacher’s developing the unit.

So if the logistics behind IDUs are potentially a deterrent to their implementation, why not make “Interdisciplinary Studies” its own MYP course?


Lionel Elvin has a very poignant thought about a model of disciplinary education:

“When you are out walking, nature does not confront you for three quarters of an hour only with flowers and in the next only with animals.”

This may sound silly, but he has a point.

While most of us are aware of Finland ditching traditional subjects in recent years in favour of a “Phenomenon based” education, curriculum specialists such as Heidi Hayes Jacobs have long advocated for a greater amount of interdisciplinary learning in schools. “Outside of school”, Jacobs writes, “we deal with problems and concerns in a flow of time that is not divided into knowledge fields…it is critical that students see the strength of each discipline perspective in a connected way”. She said this, by the way, in 1989 – this is nothing new.

In fact, you could make the argument that an integrated approach to education is the most authentic way in which we can learn things – in context, with multiple disciplines supporting us to create solutions to problems, express our creativity or satisfy our curiosities.

When you are out walking, nature does not confront you for three quarters of an hour only with flowers and in the next only with animals.


So how can MYP schools approach building Interdisciplinary Studies as a course of its own?

The sky is the limit to how we could approach this really. High Tech High in the United States provides one interesting model, Finland provides another.

But in the context of most MYP schools I have encountered, three initial ideas come tomind:

1. Interdisciplinary studies could become a rotational subject, experienced in a trimester or semester timeline. This would be fairly easy to plug into a schedule, however, it might make the course seem superficial – more of a “have to do”, hit-and-run experience than a sustained and meaningful approach.

2. Interdisciplinary Studies could become an alternate programme for students who opt-in. These students would naturally spend less time in other disciplines and more time satisfying requirements via more robust interdisciplinary experiences. Schools such as Shanghai American are currently following a model such as this. While this would be a good way to pilot the a new course, it does potentially lend itself to exclusivity.

3. Reduce the number of hours for traditional subjects and have Interdisciplinary Studies make up the majority of a student’s timetable. This would still allow for students to experience disciplinary learning (something Jacob’s highlights as critical to the interdisciplinary experience) and would allow schools to put into practice a framework for learning that is more authentic than traditional models. This might mean the MYP would have to give on its “All strands, twice a year” assessment model, but an argument can be made that the “sacrifice” of less exposure to the disciplinary strands would be more than worth it.

Day to Day

Students can, and, when possible, should be involved in the development of Interdisciplinary units. – Heidi Hayes Jacobs

In terms of how the course might look on a day-to-day basis, I will again pull from Ms. Jacobs who notes, “Students can, and, when possible, should be involved in the development of Interdisciplinary units”.

Within the classroom, we would see students identifying actual problems in their own lives/communities and seeking authentic ways to solve them. Students using design thinking and a process such as the one suggested in The Quest for Learning, to begin to design their own interdisciplinary units and success criteria.

In this model, the teacher becomes a servant leader – seeking out opportunities for students to go deeper with their thinking, supporting students in making the necessary connections to local and online experts and liaising with expert teachers in necessary areas of subject integration (it doesn’t take a math teach to recognize when math might be needed in an IDU).

In this model, teachers don’t need to be subject experts, just experts in supporting students to design their experience, connect with relevant experts and reflect on their indicators of success, by facilitating co-assessment between the student, experts and teacher.

Eventually, this course would not only promote more authentic learning and increased empowerment of learners, but may potentially push schools towards offering flexible timetables, purpose-built learning spaces and a community approach to teaching – one that goes beyond “team teaching” and extends into “it takes a village” territory.

Considering that life never presents itself to us in a silo-esque way, why should we present learning in this way to our students?

How does your school handle IDUs? What ways are you looking to increase student involvement in Interdisciplinary learning?

I am personally going to advocate to facilitate an Interdisciplinary Studies course option to be put into place at our school during the next academic year. I am excited to hear the feedback I get and will share any progress.


Elvin, L. (1977). The Place of Common Sense in Educational Thought. London: Unwin Educational Books.

Jacobs, H.H. (1989). Interdisciplinary curriculum: Design and implementation. ASCD.


Timetables – The Enemy of Creativity

I’m writing this while sitting next to two students who are editing a short film. One just turned to the other, and in an expression of pure joy, exclaimed, “OMG! I literally have goosebumps right now!”, in reference to her creation. More on this later…

Currently, the vast majority of my students are engaged in creative endeavours. My MYP Media students are finalizing short films to share with their peers, enter in film festivals and use as provocations for filmmaking workshops. My MYP Language and Literature students are crafting short stories – many of which students hope they can submit for publication. Even my DP Language and Literature students are engaging in a written task assessment – which, if you know DP Lang and Lit, is about as creative they are “allowed” to be over the duration of the two year course (kidding…sort of).

Perhaps the convergence of all of this creative energy is making this issue more apparent, but right now, my students are definitely victims of a timetabling system that is an antiquated practice and certainly an enemy of creativity and deep learning.

Would a real filmmaker, preparing her work for submission to her production company say to herself, “Ok…today I will work on my film from 9:00-10:30, but then at 10:30 I have to stop because then it’s time to do some math”? For that matter, would a real mathematician say, “I’m going to gather insights into this data, but only for ninety minutes because then I have to go edit a film”?

Of course not.

This  is the inauthentic world of timetabled learning that we have created in schools. A world where creativity – a slow process in any discipline – is cut short because…because a piece of paper you got on the first day of school says it has to.

So when children are trying to write a story that they have invested themselves in emotionally, or are completing a film that they are planning to show to a wide audience of peers and community members, they are forced to do so in these arbitrary, predetermined chunks of time – whether they want to or not, whether they feel like it or not. Have a great idea during a time not designated for that type of thinking? Too bad, you have a schedule to keep.

This type of traditional school-driven timetabling is as old as schools itself and is designed for logistical ease – not for student learning.

Quick - be creative! But only for the next 90 minutes... 

Quick! Be creative! But only for the next 90 minutes…

What are the side effects of school-driven timetabling when students are involved in deep learning? On one hand, it forces children into the ridiculous need to shift their ability to be analytical, be creative, be physically active, at the snap of a finger. It perpetuates a, “good enough” attitude from students who end up creating not what they really wanted to, but a reasonable facsimile that satisfies the requirements of the time constraints that have been determined for them. It doesn’t allow for slow thinking of any kind – reflection, adjustment, seeking feedback and fine tuning – that all creators would say are integral aspects of high-quality products.

The good news about timetables? We’ve created them, so we can destroy them. We can leverage technology to offload the need for a lot of traditional “lessons”, which would free up time for teachers to move more towards the role of consultant, mentor and coach. We can create environments like this one, or this one where students create their own timetables based on need and interest, not based on arbitrary decisions from the timetabling robot that spits out a schedule for them.

What would the side effects of a student-driven timetable be? First of all, learning how to manage time. We often lament that time-management is a skill that is lacking in many students – of course it is, we manage the majority of their time on their behalf. Turning the timetable over to the students would allow them to take ownership over this process and free up teachers to support students with strategies on how to manage their short and long-term goals.

Secondly, a student-driven timetable would support students in learning the key skill of prioritization. There are literally endless books and blogs dedicated to the art of prioritizing and managing one’s daily list of “to-do’s”; perhaps this wouldn’t be such a common stressor if we learned and used these skills as we were growing up. A student-driven timetable would give children the space and freedom to go deep, to truly sink their teeth into their learning, to “get it”, to have those moments of wonder and accomplishment and to learn that, often, the things we are the most proud of are the things that we really put our heart and soul into – often for more than 60-90 minutes two to three times a week.

Finally and most importantly, a student-driven timetable says to children, “you matter”. It says, “you are able to be the driver of your own learning”. It says “your time belongs to you”. Empowering students to manage their time and projects is a kinder, more humane, more authentic approach to learning and creating – one that we should be advocating for on behalf of our learners.

If they had the choice, they'd be at this all day. Shouldn't they have that choice?

If it were up to them, they’d do this all day – shouldn’t they have that choice? 

This brings me back to where I started…the two students I mentioned at the beginning of this post? They are still sitting beside me, completely in flow and completely content. One  just said to another, “Wow, we’ve been here for hours…it’s nearly six o’clock”. They want to keep going, but they have to go home to eat dinner. I’m sure if they had the choice, they would have spent their entire school day perfecting their creation, so they didn’t have to spend their after school time doing so. If they were only given the time.