Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Interdisciplinary Education: From STA to STEAM

Interdisciplinary practice allows individuals to focus on collaboration and participation with others to find solutions to increasingly complex problems occurring in the world today.  When working across disciplines we can draw on multiple perspectives, practices, epistemologies and methodologies to identify how these can be utilised to solve real world problems.

Despite the best efforts of educators and those who support them, our system struggles to meet the challenging need of today's learners.  We need to cope with complex lives, and social, economic and environmental issues.  Now, more than ever, the education system must equip young people to be the problem solvers of the future.  Our students need to become innovators, designers and creators - not just passive consumers.  They need to be able to solve complex problems, often in cross-disciplinary and collaborative settings.  New Zealand's prosperity depends on our ability to compete in a flattened, gobal economy driven by innovation, specialisation and entrepreneurship.  

Interdisciplinary Education has implications for curriculum design and delivery.  Scrutinising the effectiveness of existing structures is important here.  Some parts of the Education Act are barriers to innovation and need to be reviewed, for example covering the length of the school day, hours of instruction, and enrolment and attendance requirements.  If we are serious about supporting learning anywhere and anytime, breaking down institutional boundaries and allowing far greater flexibility to create tailored learning programmes around the needs of learners, then existing systems and structures will need to change.

You will see from my Interdisciplinary Education Popplet, that I am very engaged in cross disciplinary practices.  This has always been an interest of mine, and I struggled moving to a system last year where I no longer had the ability to work in such an integrated way.  While we still have a long way to go towards addressing these barriers at our school, the groundswell is underway, and is being driven from both the top-down and the ground-up.  This year we have changed our timetable to accommodate an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning; having integrated our English and Social Science Departments to create an Integrated Literacies team, and our Science, Technology and The Arts Departments to create our new STA team.  While we do include Engineering and Design Thinking in our programme, the 'E' just doesn't fit nicely into our name ... yet!  It is within this team that my teaching of Computer Science falls.  

This alignment is the first stage in a larger move towards STEAM.  The combination of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths is part of a global movement, designed to increase economic competitiveness.  Currently Auckland is facing an employment market shortage in STEM related industries, driving a need for a more skilled workforce.  Initiatives within schools have included:
  • providing mobile devices for students (sometimes in the forms of computer labs, and other times in the form of 1:1)
  • after-school STEM clubs or programs
  • STEM curriculum, where projects using STEM practices are embedded
  • BYOD initiatives (bring your own device)
  • STEM days to encourage hands-on exploration within each of these disciplines
  • robotics programs
However, while STEM initiatives are a wonderful start into the exploration of these four areas of study, the critical process of creativity and innovation is missing.  STEAM is a way to take the benefits of STEM and complete the package by integrating these principles in and through the Arts.  STEAM removes limitations and replaces them with wonder, critique, inquiry, and innovation (SteamPortal).

Andrews (1990) defines interdisciplinary collaboration as occurring “when different professionals, possessing unique knowledge, skills, organisational perspective, and personal attributes, engage in coordinated problem solving for a common purpose” (cited in Berg-Weger & Schneider, 1998).  As a team, we meet regularly to share ideas and show examples of student learning that is happening within our rooms, however we each maintain sole responsibility for our 8 week component of the programme.  At this stage we are investing a lot of time in the intentional connections between the different curriculum areas, aligning and unpacking assessments, the creation of a shared language, processes and strategies, and reflecting on implementation.  Our classrooms are spread across the school, and the programme still runs under a traditional model with one teacher, and students are located in an individual class.  I often dream of an STA ILE similar to those at Glenfield College, Northcross Intermediate and Auckland Normal Intermediate, where the open, shared workplace, qualities/attitudes and common goals have enhances their collaborative, interdisciplinary experience for staff and students alike.

Our schools need to foster innovative teaching and leadership, support leaders to make change and stimulate innovation and nurture new and emerging approaches to teaching and learning.  We need to work to implement a coordinated, system-wide effort to align curriculum, digital technologies, property, infrastructure, funding and legislation within our schools, however this alone will not improve learning.  Students, teachers and leaders must adapt their practices to make best educational use of these investments (Future Focused Learning in Connected Communities)

Reference List:

Berg-Wege, M., & Schneider, F.D. (1998).  Interdisciplinary collaboration in social work education.  Journal of Social Work Education, 34, 97-107.


  1. Hi Ellie,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog post and I could see the enthusiasm you have for interdisciplinary learning. I agree with you about the benefits it has on our students as it is teaching them to be collaborative, holistic thinkers and helps them develop skills needed to one day help them in the workforce. I also agree with the Education Act being a barrier to being able to be 100% interdisciplinary as there are so many factors we need to be aware of and guidelines which we must meet which can be a challenge!

  2. Hi Ellie,
    Thanks for your post, I enjoyed reading it too and agree with your thoughts and ideas. I recently had an interesting experience with a classroom filled with parents. We were discussing BYOD at our school and the two of us who were presenting to the group are also Mindlab study participants. We were discussing the key competencies form the National Curriculum and the 21st Century competencies in relation to why we were using BYOD. A parent raised their hand and then asked - 'if these competencies are so important and such a big focus will you be changing the school report?'
    Teachers are changing their focuses to be interdisciplinary but parents and the Education Ministry are still not up with this despite their work, discussions and develop with the likes of Ms Valentine (Mindlab creator). My answer to the parents was simple 'We have to report to you on reading, writing and maths. The Ministry directs us too however, the vocabulary and language in all other aspects of our reports will be different to what some of you have been used to seeing so far in your child's schooling'. Oh if only the Ministry would listen to teachers, parents and children about the importance of interdisciplinary learning and the benefits rather than jamming everything into boxes over and over again. Boxes that do not fit anyone.