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Topic tags: interdisciplinary, how to do PBL

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April 2, 2012
How can I design an interdisciplinary project?

In the age of standardized testing and with the move toward the Common Core for the majority of states, the driving question for many teachers is: “How can I best prepare my students to meet these demands?” While core content area teachers feel the most impact, with math and English Language Arts being the most scrutinized, Common Core makes it the responsibility of all teachers to ensure our students are meeting proficient and advanced standards. One of the best ways to share the responsibility for Common Core is for teachers to design interdisciplinary Project Based Learning units. In addition to serving as an authentic purpose for the math and ELA skills in the Common Core, PBL, no matter what content area is the focus, promotes the acquisition of critical thinking skills needed by students.

For many teachers transitioning from a traditional teaching focus to one that is committed to PBL, contemplating the creation of an interdisciplinary PBL unit might seem ambitious. However, the next step in growing as a PBL practitioner is to integrate a variety of content areas into your project design. Here are some tips to get you started.

  1. No matter what subject area you teach, determine how you can integrate both math and writing into your project. You don’t have to be a math or language arts teacher in order to do your part in helping students to think critically about this content. Ask a colleague who is a subject matter expert to review your project idea and offer advice on ways to implement their standards into the PBL unit. These do not have to be new ideas for students, but can be ones that they review to hone their skills in preparation for standardized tests. Data analysis can often be a critical component in projects and the inclusion of a formal written proposal promotes the need to communicate ideas clearly.

  2. The arts have been subject to budget cuts in many districts. But core content teachers can integrate the arts into their own projects, to promote creativity and innovation in students’ learning. Many students, especially those at the secondary level, have limited exposure to the arts. Interdisciplinary projects that include the arts not only bridge the gap to waning art programs, but also increase the number of students exposed to the arts who traditionally shy away from them.

  3. To begin planning an interdisciplinary project with a colleague or colleagues, start with the standards. Compare the standards in each course to find the commonalities that may occur across the disciplines. This is a great starting point in designing your project when you teach on a team or in a small learning community. It is helpful if teachers are flexible as to when these standards can be taught to ensure an alignment in all courses that are involved in the project.

  4. While it is natural to plan a project on a team or in a small learning community that shares students, it is not necessary to have common students or classes that meet at the same time. For the interdisciplinary project, create a driving question that can be answered independently, depending on the goals and the standards to be met in each class. Determine how each set of students will focus on a portion of the project as they work toward a collaborative end goal. Use technology to connect classes and students. There are a variety of free Web 2.0 tools that can be used to facilitate discussions, house research, and collaboratively create a final product.
While you may initially want to try this approach with only two teachers, projects have been successfully completed with many more. Middle school teams, career academy teachers, and even entire grade levels and/or entire schools have created projects. With a lot of detailed planning and a dedicated group of teachers, you can design amazing opportunities for your students!

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Integrated & Interdisciplinary PBL

You have begun to master the design process of Project Based Learning and the 8 Essential Elements of PBL are evident in the projects you have planned. That's great! The next step in your PBL journey might be to plan an integrated or interdisciplinary project. You can start by bringing other content areas into your own project, or begin planning projects with your colleagues from other content areas. Learn about successfully implemented integrated/interdisciplinary projects in various subjects and grade levels, and hear about design and management techniques to transform your projects into rich learning experiences for your students. Dayna Laur, BIE National Faculty member and featured teacher from Edutopia's Schools that Work series on integrated studies, leads this hour long session.


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