Interdisciplinary Learning - How Big Questions Guide a Fresh and Effective Approach to Middle School Education

Shuk Levinsky poster from citykatstories

In the real world, knowledge and skills are not learned or applied in discrete pockets, but in conjunction with each other. At Akiba-Schechter, we want students' learning to reflect this. We are therefore introducing interdisciplinary learning (IDL) to the entire middle school.

How about broadening your Hebrew vocabulary while learning about all the different foods offered at Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv?

Or learning about Israeli culture as you figure out the commands of the Israeli beach game Matkot?

Or asking yourself, what makes all of this Jewish?

Matkot page from Tel Aviv City Stories

This is exactly what one group of our 7th/8th graders will begin doing as they embark on answering their first interdisciplinary unit's Big Question:

What makes up the "heart" of a place?

This particular unit will bring together the content areas of Art, Jewish Thought and Hebrew

Art will take the lead, centering the unit around the whimsical city guide Tel Aviv Stories

Working independently or in small groups, students will learn about Tel Aviv and contemplate what constitutes its particular culture. The goal of this four-week unit will be for students to choose another place in Israel and create their own art-based guidebook. That final project will be shared not only with their classmates, but with our wider community (We are in the progress of figuring out in what format.).

And with this short introduction, you have just glimpsed what interdisciplinary learning (IDL) is all about:

IDL is student learning built around a big question, bringing together content areas in a meaningful way. 
Science, Humanities, Language Arts, History, Jewish Thought, and Music are taught together and not as separate disciplines. 

IDL is student-led. Students are given a task and have to figure out what they need to solve the problem or answer the question. Knowledge is not handed to them. Teachers do not function as the givers of knowledge. Instead, they serve as expert guides facilitating student learning. Each IDL unit is four weeks long and culminates in an authentic final project that requires students to demonstrate their mastery of the skills and understandings of the unit.

At Akiba-Schechter we have used the IDL approach in 7th/8th grade Humanities for a number of years. We have found it so effective that we are expanding it to the entire middle school this year. 

We have found that IDL supports:

  • authentic, real-world learning
  • student ownership of their learning experience
  • student choice
  • critical-thinking skills
  • problem-solving skills
  • integration of skills across disciplines

More research on IDL can be found at Why Teach with an Interdisciplinary Approach?

Furthermore, in the age of running a school during the COVID-19 pandemic, IDL makes for a more streamlined school experience. 

During online school in the spring, we found that dividing students' days into many different units was challenging for many. There were way too many classes, sites and assignments to keep track of. With IDL, we can be nimbler. Students are focused on one project and can progress even when they do not have immediate access to a teacher or module. In the event that students need to stay at home, this project-based approach makes it easier to participate and advance.

Here are a few more examples of upcoming units:

5th/6th grade IDL unit

The 5th/6th grade unit captured in the graph above addresses the question, Why do things move the way they do? 

Led by a Science unit on motion, introducing the properties of velocity, acceleration and speed, for example, this unit will also incorporate the math of predicting and representing motion. And the Hebrew component of this unit will most likely focus on the verbs of motion.

Another 5th/6th grade unit will ask: How has communication shaped human connection?

While the Humanities component here might examine how communication has changed over time, this unit on the power of words easily connects with one of the Torah's main principles: the power of the spoken word. Music is another timeless form of communication that adds another dimension to this unit.

In today's world, knowledge is often just a few finger taps away. Education is tasked with teaching students the skills to analyze and understand their world, and to provide them with the framework to practice, hone and apply those critical skills.

We look forward to sharing many of our students' upcoming IDL projects on this blog!


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