Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2012 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 1

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The Interdisciplinary Approach: Its Impact

 

Deborah McCarthy,  Southeastern Louisiana University,  LA

Paul Simoneaux,  Southeastern Louisiana University,  LA

Flo Hill-Winstead,  Southeastern Louisiana University,  LA

 

Dr. Deborah McCarthy is an assistant professor and Mr. Paul J. Simoneaux is an instructor for Southeastern Louisiana University’s Department of Teaching and Learning.                            Ms. Flo Hill-Winstead recently retired from the university’s College of Education and Human Development as Director of Assessment and Program Evaluation.

 

Abstract

Capstone methods courses offered to education majors at Southeastern Louisiana University require teacher candidates to utilize an interdisciplinary approach to planning and teaching. This article provides research to support the approach, pedagogy used in the courses, and examples of student-designed lessons. To ascertain if this approach was transferable when teacher candidates became student teachers, a study was conducted to assess the impact. The results revealed positive effects on instruction.

 

Introduction

Methods courses for teacher candidates are a vital component of the curriculum for elementary education majors across the United States.  As co-instructors of the capstone methods courses Curriculum and Instruction in the Elementary School (Grades 1-5) and Upper Elementary Curriculum and Instruction (Grades 4-8), we emphasize the integration of science, social studies, and language arts in lesson planning and teaching.  Our goals in promoting this interdisciplinary approach are to encourage teacher candidates to be better prepared, have a deeper knowledge of the content they teach, incorporate various skills required in each discipline, and meet learning preferences. We decided to determine if instructing teacher candidates in the development and implementation of this approach impacted planning and teaching as student teachers. To assess the impact, we constructed 7 items and included them on an exit survey titled Reflective Practice with the assistance of the Director of Assessment and Program Evaluation. The items questioned the extent of usage, the effect on depth of knowledge, preparation, enrichment of content, accommodation of learning preferences, multiculturalism, and multidisciplinary skills. Student teachers in Fall 2009 and Spring 2010 completed the survey as part of the requirements for graduation.

Why an Interdisciplinary Approach?  

To upgrade and invigorate the curriculum for students of the 21st Century an interdisciplinary approach should be considered according to Jacobs. Jacobs recommended, “Some specific considerations are required in examining each discipline, even as there is a need for rigorous inquiry into finding meaningful interdisciplinary connections. We cannot simply lean on what we are accustomed to teaching” (Jacobs, 2010, p. 32).  In particular, Jacobs stressed the need to interweave scientific knowledge through the curriculum to equip students with problem solving skills. 

 

Duerr (2008) advocated the mixing of science and language arts especially for middle school students. She cited that reading quality textbooks coupled with fiction and non fiction trade books increases students’ vocabulary in the discipline while being entertaining. It allows students to relate to the content in a more personal way and think critically like scientists or historians. Duerr reasoned, “Literature allows readers to live vicariously and expands students’ perceptions and understandings of their World” (p. 176).  Since 1993, the American Association for the Advancement of Science followed by other organizations such as NASA, the National Research Council (1996) and the National Science Foundation recognized the need for this type of contextuality. Science history provides concrete examples of how the scientific enterprise operates that are of surpassing significance to our cultural heritage (AAAS, 1993).   In addition, Libresco (2006) suggested teaching language arts utilizing social studies or science content as a way of saving social studies, in particular, from being lost in this era of high stakes testing.

 

Cole (2008) identified racism and prejudice, unequal expectations, and lack of understanding of cultural differences as attitudes and beliefs of teachers that hinder children’s learning. He included interdisciplinary instruction in his list of stimulating instructional strategies designed to erode those negative attitudes and beliefs. Pointing out the relevancy of this strategy, Cole sights a trip to the super market as an exercise in interdisciplinary instruction being that counting, measuring, reading, nutrition, and spatial orientation are part of the experience. 

 

 Implementation of an interdisciplinary approach has an impact on more than just academic success.  In a study done by Wang and Ku to determine the components of a framework for implementing affective education for 5th graders, they included interdisciplinary instruction as one of the two strategies used.  The findings were that interdisciplinary instruction using storytelling “could at least lead students to Krathwohl’s first and second levels of receiving and responding” (Wang & Ku , 2010, p.624). 

 

  Encapsulating the benefits of interdisciplinary instruction, Duerr (2008) acknowledged, “It encourages critical thinking skills, the creativity of both teachers and students, and a fresh outlook on teaching methods. It is a worthwhile approach toward making learning more effective for all students, especially that group seemingly most likely to be lost in the sea of academia: adolescents” (p. 180).

 

Finally, according to Beane,  “Almost all platforms for the improvement of middle level education, including those of National Middle School Association and the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, support the idea of moving beyond the separate subject approach to organizing the curriculum” (Beane, 2010, para. 1).

 

 

 

Our Pedagogical Practices

The teacher candidates in the capstone methods courses Curriculum and Instruction in the Elementary School (Grades 1-5) and Upper Elementary Curriculum and Instruction (Grades 4-8) meet with instructors four days every week for 3 hours and go into the field for 2 weeks at the beginning and end of each 16 week semester. Between field experiences, our candidates present instructional strategies, conference with the instructors, and develop lesson plans. 

 

Lesson plans designed by the teacher candidates must integrate science, social studies and language arts.  According to Tompkins (2005) the infusion of language arts is best accomplished by providing age/grade appropriate activities. In Language arts: Patterns of practice, Tompkins provides six areas: listening, talking, reading, writing, viewing and visually representing which we emphasize in our courses. The curriculum design our teacher candidates implement is categorized by Beane (2010) as the existing subject curriculum which he defines as “… a topic already taught in one subject is opened up for consideration from the viewpoints of other subjects” (para. 2).  In these courses, the mentor teachers who work with the teacher candidates during field experience assign the content from the Louisiana Comprehensive Curriculum to be covered (Louisiana Department of Education, 2010). 

 

To prepare our teacher candidates to integrate language arts, they develop a non-textbook, hands-on activity on spelling, select one poetry form to teach, and present a grammar lesson.  A language arts pre test is required for the first field experience based on the Louisiana Comprehensive Curriculum. The teacher candidates identify one or two skills to emphasize, imbed practice of the skill in their lessons, and administer a post test to track changes in mastery of the skill.  To help our teacher candidates integrate science, social studies and language arts, the assistant director of the Library of Congress employed at the university shares ideas on how primary sources can be used to make social studies come alive and to humanize science.  Historical fiction and artifacts are integral components of the presentation.  In addition, the course instructor guides the teacher candidates through an interdisciplinary science lesson developed as a learning cycle. Following this exercise, our teacher candidates build a learning cycle which integrates language arts, science and social studies.  Subsequently, our teacher candidates design interdisciplinary lessons for the field. They work in the field for 2 weeks during the first and latter half of the semester and are observed and assessed while teaching. Because of the schedule and predetermined content they are limited as to how thoroughly the disciplines can be integrated. 

                                                                                                                  

It is apparent that there are many ways to mesh social studies, science, and language arts from these examples of lesson plans designed by our teacher candidates. In this example, the objective of a 6th grade science lesson was to have the students explore the concept of density. Working in groups, the students discovered, through hands-on activities, the relationship of mass to volume.  As a social studies connection, our teacher candidate provided a map of Louisiana showing population density as people per square mile of different ages and included ethnicities to emphasize cultural diversity. The language arts connection involved a grand discussion of the map.

 

In a 4th grade science lesson, the objective for the students was to investigate the role of roots, stems and leaves by examining a flower and placing it along with a celery stalk in a cup of blue-colored water. Our teacher candidate played a recording of music from Africa to highlight the culture.  To incorporate language arts skills, as the music played, the students wrote words that came to mind as they listened. She then displayed a visual of plants native to Africa and provided historical information about each plant. 

 

The Study: Instrument and Participants

 Typically, in the semester that follows these capstone methods courses, teacher candidates enter the area schools as student teachers. For approximately 16 weeks they plan and teach under the guidance of their university supervisor and supervising teacher. Prior to graduation, student teachers complete the exit survey Reflective Practice. To ascertain if instruction as teacher candidates in an interdisciplinary approach to planning and teaching impacted them as student teachers, we embedded the 7 items detailed below. The survey was completed in the electronic web-based assessment system, PASS-PORT.  It consisted of 22 items. Included were the seven items we designed pertaining to the use of an interdisciplinary approach to planning and teaching. The Conceptual Framework of Southeastern Louisiana University’s College of Education and Human Development was our basis for construction.  The 7 items appeared in the survey as 13 -19.  For item 13, the student teachers used a scale inclusive of N/A, “none”, “some”, and “much”. The available responses for Items 14 – 19 were:  “strongly disagree”, “disagree”, “agree”, and “strongly agree”.  

                                                 

Through cluster sampling, we obtained data from 80 student teachers formerly enrolled in each section of Curriculum and Instruction in the Elementary School (Grades 1-5), and Upper Elementary Curriculum and Instruction (Grades 4-8). The majority were white females between the ages of 22 and 30 years whose field of study was Curriculum and Instruction in the Elementary School and graduated in Fall of 2009 and Spring of 2010.  Percentages were calculated separately for each available response on Items 13 to 19. Throughout the data, 15 to 16 percent of the participants selected N/A as a response. Additionally, there were 79 responses to Items 18 and 19. (See Table 1.) 

 

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What the Data Revealed

Firstly, on the Reflective Practice survey, Item 13 questioned the student teachers’ use of  interdisciplinary instruction.  It asked: To what extent did you use the interdisciplinary approach to instruction learned in your capstone methods class?  Eighty five percent of the respondents specified  “some” or “much” indicating that they used what they had learned in their capstone methods courses at their school sites.  This implies that as student teachers, they valued the approach and continued to implement it even though the Louisiana Components of Effective Teaching instrument used by university supervisors, supervising teachers, and principals to evaluate performance does not include any criteria measuring this type of instruction (Louisiana Department of Education, 2010). (See Table 2.)

 

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Subsequently, 82 percent of the student teachers chose “agree” or “strongly agree” for Item 14 which stated: When I use an interdisciplinary approach to instruction it broadens my knowledge of content. This indicates that they researched beyond the basic content, expanding their perspective on the material being taught. 

 

Item 15 explored the extent of preparation.  It stated:  When I use an interdisciplinary approach to instruction it prepares me more thoroughly to teach the content.  In response, 81 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the approach promotes self-preparation and more in-depth understanding.

 

According to the responses for Item 16, the participants felt that using an interdisciplinary approach encouraged them to include activities that enhanced the lesson because the activities crossed over into another branch of learning.  Eighty four percent selected “agree” or “strongly agree” for the statement: When I use an interdisciplinary approach to instruction it enriches the content of my lessons.

 

It appears that the student teachers realized the merit of meshing the disciplines and were more apt to accommodate several multiple intelligences in their lessons. Of those who responded, 84 percent agreed or strongly agreed with Item 17 which stated:  When I use an interdisciplinary approach to instruction it enhances my ability to meet individual learning preferences. For example, the objective of a student teacher’s 2nd grade science lesson was that the students explore forms of energy.  To begin the lesson, she read Using Energy by Baker.  After she taught the content through hands-on activities, the students completed a booklet that included each form of energy as a heading, wrote a sentence and created a picture to illustrate how each form of energy is used in everyday life.  

 

The United States Department of Education published statistics in the Journal of blacks in higher education (2008) that the African-American percentage of all students in U.S. public schools in 2006 was 15.6. (p. 2. par. 6) and the percentage of Latinos from ages    5 – 17 in U.S. schools was 19.2 (Rivera-Batiz, 2008). This makes the response significant to Item 18: When I use an interdisciplinary approach to instruction it encourages me to infuse components of multicultural education in my lessons. For this item, 82 percent agreed or strongly agreed.

 

Item 19 reflected Duerr and Libresco’s assertion that an interdisciplinary approach allows skills in several disciplines to be acquired simultaneously. Item 19 stated: When I use an interdisciplinary approach to instruction it allows me to teach multi disciplinary skills.

 Eighty five percent of the respondents selected “agree” or “strongly agree”.  Referring to the example of the 2nd grade science lesson on energy, it illustrated that while fostering skills necessary to master a science concept, language arts skills where also being sharpened. (See Table 3.)  

 

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Conclusions

It is evident from the data from the Reflective Practice survey that as student teachers, these former teacher candidates continued to use an interdisciplinary approach.  Results illustrated that student teachers agreed that the approach encouraged more thorough preparation for lessons which broadened their knowledge base. They recognized it as an avenue to enrich content, meet individual learning preferences, incorporate multiculturalism, and teach multidisciplinary skills.  These responses indicated that instruction in an interdisciplinary approach to lesson planning and teaching as teacher candidates was transferable and had a positive impact on planning and teaching as student teachers. It appears that method classes implementing an interdisciplinary approach are beneficial and should be considered when designing teacher preparation programs.

 

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National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington                           D.C.: National Academy Press.                                                                                             Rivera-Batiz, F.L. (2008). Educational inequality and the Latino population of the U.S.:A   summary report prepared for the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers         College, Columbia U. Retrieved from            http://www.tcequity.org/i/a/document/6584_Latino_Educational_Equity_Report.p            df                                                                                                                       Tompkins, G.E. (2005). Language arts-Patterns of practice. New Jersey: Pearson             Prentice Hall.                                                                                                         Wang, C.C. & Ku, H-Y. (2010).  A case study of an affective education course in Taiwan.             Education Technology Research Development, 58, 613–628. Retrieved from             http://ejournals.ebsco.com.ezproxy.selu.edu/Direct.asp?AccessToken=9IQQQI58            XQDIDD1ERU5KX9Q5JK1K8I95X4&Show=Object&ErrorURL=http%3A%2F  %2Flinksource%2Eebsco%2Ecom%2Ferror%2Easpx