The purpose of a standards-focused middle level school is to offer academic achievement and intellectual, personal and social development of each of the students at the level. These goals complement each other to provide a wholesome, well-rounded student body that meets the rigors of today's world. The goals do not compete against each other as they are compatible, mutually supportive and linked to each other in a manner that nurtures the talent of the learner.
The New York State Education Department's Middle-Level Education Program (NYSEDMLEP) in conjunction with three other organizations namely The Statewide Network of Middle-Level Education Liaisons, The New York State Middle School Association and The New York City Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform have developed seven essential elements of standards-focused middle level school programs. These provide the foundation for instruction in Middle Level Grade School including standards on interdisciplinary teaching.
Interdisciplinary instruction refers to the application of knowledge, values and/or principles to several academic disciplines simultaneously. In such cases, the school becomes a small community of learning in which teachers share students, space and schedule (Chandramohan & Fallows, 2009). Emphasis is placed on a thematic unit that is a framework with specified outcomes for each level of learning.
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In an integrated instructional environment, children explore knowledge in a number of subjects related to particular aspects of their environment. Instruction cuts across subject matter lines and combines various aspects of the curriculum into meaningful association. It features a combination of subjects, flexible schedules and student groupings, emphasis on projects, thematic units as organizing principles and emphasis on relationships among concepts.
According to Reimann and Spada, (1996), interdisciplinary teaching is a unique method or a combination of methods used employed to teach a given unit across different disciplines in the curriculum. For instance, social studies, science and arts teachers may decide to work together to develop an interdisciplinary unit on mountains for the seventh grade. The nearest mountain or any other well-known mountain becomes a unifying factor or idea. The language teacher for instance the English teacher would link it to art by studying vocabularies associated with mountains and teaching students on how to write a comprehensive research report on mountains. On the other hand, the science teacher might teach the students on the environment around the mountain such as the trees and the soil texture and the lives that survive there, while the social studies teacher might choose to teach students on the historical literature around the mountain and how the local society benefited and regarded the mountain.
There are different levels and types of interdisciplinary teaching. For instance, schools may use an interdisciplinary team where teachers who have specialized in different field are assigned to particular group of students and encourage them to compare and correlate the different contents (Vars, 2000). Here, the students are encouraged to search for similarities in the different contents they are taught. However, the most commonly applied method in implementing interdisciplinary integrated content or instructions is where a common theme is taught in different content areas. This is referred to as thematic integration (Vars, 2000). The students are allowed to evaluate a particular theme from different points of view as taught in different disciplines. James Bean, a pioneering scholar in interdisciplinary teaching advocated for curriculum integration that involved four major components. They include integration of experiences, integration of knowledge, social integration and integration as curriculum design. This form defers with others as it starts with central theme that emerges from questions and social perceptions that students have without regarding subject delineations (Wood, 2005).
Wood (2005) lists several benefits of interdisciplinary instruction. They include enthusiasm from students, parents and staff leading to enhanced attendance from the students. This builds interest in school activities among the students leading to better and even better focused instructions. As a result, the students perform better in the test scores as they maintain interest in learning activities. Most importantly, students learn at their pace and develop confidence in their own ability to internalize the issues as opposed to the skills being forced on them. In addition, the methods puts an end to fragmentation and isolated skills instruction leading to a more integrated and wholesome educational experience. Lastly, instructors manage to cover the provisions of the curriculum in less time.
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Interdisciplinary instruction is also beneficial to the teachers in a variety of ways. To begin with, the teachers embrace and value diversity in the school community and in the world at large. According to Wood, the benefits of diversity are higher than the negative impacts in an educational setting. Wood attributed his observation to the rich exchange of experiences from the multiplicity of backgrounds of the student body and instructional content. In addition, the teachers customize their teaching to accommodate the students with special needs. Besides, teachers bring on board other essential stakeholders in education including the parents and other significant adults to bear upon the responsibility of educating the students.
In addition to the above, teachers recognize the integrated nature of the disciplines taught. as a result, the teachers make instruction more relevant and wholesome to students. In such a setting, the teachers can find the methods of learning that are most effective for each of the students in relation to their intellectual, social, physical and emotional development of their students. Accordingly, the teachers can use a multiplicity of instructional methods to reach to as many students as possible. Teachers also help the students to develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills through focused team work with fellow students. These student teams also nurture leadership qualities of students as well as preparing the teachers to function effectively in dynamic and complex learning environment.
The need for interdisciplinary teaching at the middle level is based on the premise that the level transits between the elementary level, where a student is accustomed to one teacher and the high school level where students will have a variety of teachers and classes every day. Because the students are used to having one teacher, the may be overwhelmed and confused by a heavy schedule of lessons and content. In addition, this is an adolescent stage to many students and they may have emotional problems and sometimes may not associate well with the peers. Such like students are prone to failure. The interdisciplinary level is applied to induce a sense of membership and reduce alienation. In addition, the thematic approach is applied to allow the students trace a relationship between the many disciplines and thereby reduce confusion (Wood, 2005).
There are different models applied in implementing the intermediary teaching during middle grade. However, the two teacher team model is necessary for six graders as it provides for a sound transition from the one teacher classroom in the elementary level to the four teacher team found commonly in the seventh grade. In this model of interdisciplinary teaching, teachers are certified in teaching two content areas. This model allows for flexibility as there are possibilities of combining subject lessons (Vars, 2000). In some cases, teachers are specialized in three or four subject content areas that make it easy for them to plan an interdisciplinary unit. This allows a teacher to analyze the subjects deeply through a number of approaches and content specific lens. For a class of diversified learners, the teachers are able to differentiate better the instruction for different individual leaners. This is important as students also have chance to work with a variety of sources of information which ensures that they work from a more inclusive angle and perspective than they would if they consulted a single text book (Wood, 2005).
At this level, students may not be satisfied with sitting back and taking knowledge passively. In this case, the interdisciplinary approach is necessary as it is more practical and calls for activeness among the students. It provides room for a faster transfer of information and provides a continuous stimuli as students meet information on the same theme in different disciplines. This allows students to evaluate relationships and connections in their area of study. In addition, this method suits a diversified group of learners as they get to meet diversified knowledge about the same theme (Vars, 2000). The interdisciplinary instruction also allows the students to apply information through critical thinking rather teaching to standardized tests.
A number of concerns arise from the interdisciplinary instruction. To begin with, it is difficult to remain committed to the original intended instructional content. A myriad of diverse distraction pose a threat to the teacher's commitment to the original intended instructional content. In addition, the instruction might superficially cover the content and thereby discount the value of deep knowledge in a specific subject. In essence, the broad spread of instructional content across a wide spectrum of topics can compromise on the depth of knowledge taught on each of these topics.
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Despite the above concerns, Chandramohan and Fallows offer a number of points to observe to ensure quality learning in interdisciplinary instruction sessions. Chandramohan and Fallows offer that any interdisciplinary learning session should be student centered and should maintain the integrity of each discipline. Besides, it should also increase the depth of student understanding and achievement and should align with established learning standards. It should also reach all kinds of learners as well as bring on board stakeholders in and out of school who can provide alternative solutions to problems. Lastly, the method should offer a balance amongst the various disciplines being studied.
In general, interdisciplinary teaching is an often proposed approach at the middle level. However, the method can is also applicable and even effective at other levels. Scholars have it that the approach motivates students and it essential when attending to students of both diversified abilities and personalities.