You say Potato, I say Potato. I say Interdisciplinary, You say Transdisciplinary. Do we understand each other?

Staff Meetings

While presenting at a staff meeting the other day, I explained that in the after school club I led I used an interdisciplinary approach to my teaching. Going on to explain, I told how one unit in garden club will have all subjects interwoven into it – Science, ELA, Social Studies, and yes, even Math. Now, I think that maybe I should have given some specific examples. For instance, when corn is our topic, the history and origin of the plant is covered, along with lore and legend (there are many from Native American histories), the horticultural and botanical aspects of the plant including number of types (4),  new, rich vocabulary and/or stories to support language arts, and even math calculations that involve calculating kernels per ear or ears per acre were all part of the lesson.

This revelation occurred to me as I stared out at a crowd of teachers I barely knew and recognized their blank stares coming back at me!  As my friend MJ, who is a special education teacher for the vision impaired says, “I know that look.” It either says I don’t know what you’re talking about or I don’t care what you are talking about. Okay – it was 7:30 in the morning, on a Tuesday.  But, still! Surely, they knew what I was getting at. Right?

It dawned on me, as I sat through the remainder of the staff meeting out of politeness, and listened to two third grade teachers talk about developing standards for their new inquiry based curriculum (they are becoming an international baccalaureate school), that they were using the word transdisciplinary and I had used the word interdisciplinary.

Everyone in the room was exposed to, and surely had, similar pedagogy. Surely, they had understood what I meant when I used interdisciplinary. Right?! I am not so sure. So, I set out to see if the words can be used interchangeably or not. refers to transdisciplinary as an adjective meaning; pertaining to or involving more than one discipline; interdisciplinary.  HA! There it is interdisciplinary is a synonym for transdisciplinary!  Still, I was doubting.  So, what does Merriam say? This source is even more brief, just listing “interdisciplinary” on the page for the definition of transdisciplinary.  I went on to dig up some research on the terms, because I do think some confusion exists with these terms.

What’s the Difference?

Carleton College offers an explanation of how interdisciplinary teaching “differs from cross-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary teaching in that it involves integration and synthesis of different perspectives rather than just including those different views.”  It involves the use and integration of methods, theory and analysis from more than one academic area to examine a theme, issue, question, or topic ( It is, in fact, the elimination of silos in learning. Although, the article from Carleton defines cross disciplinary and multi-disciplinary, it does not address anything about transdisciplinary learning.

So, on to another source. For several years I was a member of the ASCD or The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. This group offers many timely and relevant publications for the educational community. They also publish the journal Educational Leadership in which I found many useful articles. You can find them by clicking the link above, if you choose. (This is not a paid promotion, just a recommendation for a source of educational publications – I am not currently a member, but considering signing up again.)  In any case, in an online chapter from the book Interdisciplinary Curriculum by Heidi Hayes Jacobs, the word transdisciplinary is finally defined as “beyond the scope of the disciplines.”  Huh? As a lover of words, that makes sense, but I am almost positive that is not how it is being applied to this school’s new approach.

Connections not Deletions

By sitting in the meeting, I learned how this staff is trying to combine social studies and science topics and address standards and content from both areas within the topics. The important point is that interdisciplinary instruction reinforces connections between disciplines or subject areas, not disparities. Commonalities are stressed, not disparaged.

Still, it is hard to tell the difference between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary if there is one. Finally, I found a source that more thoroughly discussed transdisciplinary approaches to instruction,  explaining it as learning relevant to real world. Okay, I’m on board with that. Again, sounds like interdisciplinary learning – after all, the world is not fragmented, our experiences are woven together with strands of fabric from many disciplines or “fields” of knowledge.  Perhaps, as I read further, it is what the learner is left with after the learning takes place is what differentiates it from interdisciplinary learning. Supposedly, the explorations and inquiry that take place with a transdisciplinary approach lead to a greater, and deeper understanding of humanity, not merely content.  Okay, again that sounds good. But, I am still left not really understanding the difference between the too methods. And, maybe, if I pressed I would discover that part of the quizzical faces I saw when I used the work interdisciplinary was part of a lack of thorough understanding on the staff’s part as well.

Do Semantics Matter?

All I know is that I am not so sure that the semantics matter. The fact that we are trying, as educators, to provide our students with the most comprehensive and useful ways to know, survive in, contribute to, and maybe improve our world is what is important. Right? Lately, I find that both courses and departments are being renamed both at the district and state level. Why is that? Are we reinventing the wheel? How much time is being spent changing course, re-labeling, and re-packaging as opposed to real teaching and becoming the best educators we can be?

As I looked around the room, I was inspired by the degree of energy some of the staff exhibited. Thoughtful, clarifying questions were being asked by those individuals. And, I also had concern because along with the high energy, optimistic, forward thinkers in the room, there were those who looked at me and looked upon those who were part of their own staff trying to provide structure for the new teaching model, as if we had four heads. I know which teacher and which class I would want my own child to be a part of.

Don’t you?!

So, while I am not sure the staff understood my use of the word interdisciplinary, I know what they are trying to accomplish with a move towards inquiry based, transdisciplinary teaching and learning. I hope they understood that we are trying to accomplish the same things, semantics aside.  Time will tell.




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