Tear Down That Wall: Interdisciplinary Learning at Bay

Written by Andy Shaw, Dean of Curriculum and Innovation

“Interdisciplinary”: it’s one of those funny buzzwords that schools love to use, describing with many syllables something that intuitively, most of us know ought to be integral to an education. Technically the word means, of course, to integrate two academic disciplines, but as in so many things the impact is bigger than the word: students experience interdisciplinary learning as relevant, meaningful, multifaceted, pragmatic, and eye-opening. Bay’s leadership in interdisciplinary learning is one of many reasons I’m proud of our vision and direction as a school.

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Take a minute and write down (or at least list in your head) three issues or problems facing our community, our nation, or our world. I’d wager that most, if not all, of the topics you came up with are interdisciplinary in nature. Addressing our nation’s issues with health care requires an understanding of medicine, economics, and civics, at the very least. Problems of online privacy and security demand mastery of technology and ethics, likely with a dose of cryptography. Reckoning with a divided political landscape means understanding economics, history, geography, and behavioral psychology, just for starters.  Many recent Nobel prizes and MacArthur fellowships have gone to people working at the nexus of multiple fields, but interdisciplinary issues are not the exclusive domain of academia; whether one is a police officer, a financier, a social worker, or a citizen aspiring to cast her vote in an informed way, understanding interdisciplinary issues, and thinking in interdisciplinary ways, is of crucial and increasing importance in our era.


Screen Shot 2017-11-15 at 4.10.02 PMAs a school, we’ve facilitated students’ inquiry into climate change, globalization, gentrification, California water issues, and other problems — all of which are interdisciplinary in nature — through interdisciplinary approaches. From the perspective of an educator, there is great value in interdisciplinary teaching, when done right: project-based, in-depth, and co-taught by experts in multiple fields. At Bay one of our aims is to set up our students for transfer, the ability to take skills and concepts learned in certain classroom contexts and apply those learnings to novel settings and problems, outside the classroom. Interdisciplinary teaching helps students create bridges for this transfer, by explicitly linking the more “academic” content, like chemistry, across fields to complex applied problems, such as water quality in Mono Lake, the ocean acidification caused by climate change, or the pollution resulting from “offshoring” production to the developing world. Even more important to student learning, though, is the way team-taught interdisciplinary courses can build the muscle of interdisciplinary thinking: when a class is co-taught by teachers who are experts in multiple fields, students are able to learn firsthand about the ways different fields think about problems. When a student takes a Climate Change course taught by a scientist and a policy expert, the student can compare, contrast, and absorb the scientific way of wrestling with a problem as well as the policymaker’s way of thinking about a problem, and learn to shift between the two fluidly and intentionally. This is the stuff of leadership for the future and represents a key differentiator in terms of the interdisciplinary approach at Bay, where team-teaching, across domains of expertise, is the norm in our interdisciplinary classes.

Interdisciplinary learning is crucial for the next century, it’s great educational practice when done in team-taught ways that build transfer and habits of mind, and most importantly, our students love it. Bay’s signature interdisciplinary courses have become a key part of many students’ experience, a set of experiences our students describe as eye-opening, perspective-changing, and deeply memorable. What better reason could there be to bring down the walls that separate traditional academic disciplines?