Where Al Shanker Stood: Disciplinary Learning

In this column, published in the New York Times on February 5, 1995, Al Shanker argues that, although interdisciplinary units can be done well, there is value in the deep knowledge that the disciplines of history and math and science and literature can offer.

Interdisciplinary learning is a big educational fact these days, and it's no wonder. It's a very attractive idea. The world is not divided into disciplines so why should school be? Why not integrate what kids learn -- and show them how math and biology and history fit together --­ instead of putting these things into separate boxes? A holistic approach, advocates tell us, will make learning far more engaging for students. It will also be more stimulating for teachers, who will be encouraged to make new connections and see things in new ways.

But throwing away disciplinary learning for youngsters who have not yet mastered the disciplines creates serious problems. It constrains what teachers can teach -- and, therefore, what kids can learn -- instead of enlarging it. That's what Kathleen Roth, a science teacher and teacher educator, found when she participated in an integrated science and social studies unit (Roth 1994). The theme of the unit -- 1492 -- was a real grabber, and Roth and her colleagues planned something far more ambitious than learning the names and customs of various native American peoples and, perhaps, how to build a bark house or a canoe. They organized the year-long unit around themes of diversity, change and adaptation, and questions about how the people and land have changed since 1492 and how they might change in the next 500 years. They believed that these themes and questions would be powerful vehicles for teaching and integrating basic concepts in science and social science.

What Roth found was something quite different. The interdisciplinary focus made it difficult for her to teach scientific concepts at all. For example, because the anchor point was 500 years in the past, the kids were pretty much limited to learning from books, and Roth was unable to give them practice in the basic scientific activities of observing things, trying to explain these things and making predictions about their behavior -- as she had done with previous classes. The interdisciplinary approach meant that her students learned less science, not more -­ some new names and facts but little if anything about how scientists raise questions and resolve them.

This could have been a limitation in Roth's teaching, but a recent article by Howard Gardner and Veronica Boix-Mansilla (1994) suggests a different explanation. Disciplines are not impediments to real learning, Gardner and Boix-Mansilla say; they are powerful tools. And we are making a big mistake if we discard or ignore them in educating our children.

Gardner and Boix-Mansilla acknowledge that disciplines necessarily change with changing knowledge. And disciplines are murky around the edges -- where does biology leave off and chemistry begin? But a discipline is not an arbitrary set of restrictions that keeps us from seeing the whole picture. It is an essential body of information, built up over the centuries, about how to explore a particular area of knowledge. The discipline of biology, for example, provides the tools, the vocabulary and techniques for asking questions about life and living organisms and trying to answer them.

Gardner and Boix-Mansilla do not think that disciplinary knowledge is optional: Without it, "human beings are quickly reduced to the level of ignorant children, indeed, to the ranks of barbarians." And disciplinary knowledge is not interchangeable. How far would a medical researcher get if he threw away the techniques of his discipline and used those of a historian to find out why one group of people stayed healthy while another got sick?

Children are not born with disciplinary knowledge. They develop it as they learn what questions they can ask in history and math and science and literature, and how they can answer them. And the K-12 years are essential to this process. It is then that teachers need to use what Kathleen Roth calls the "powerful lens" of the various disciplines to focus the facts that kids are learning. It is then that teachers begin to help children learn that you don't look at the structure of a leaf using the same tools you use to examine the structure of a poem about trees -­ even though both could be part of an interdisciplinary unit about nature.

If the schools are failing our students, it is not because we are burdening them with disciplinary knowledge or are failing to provide them with holistic learning experiences. It is because we are satisfied with the shallow kind of knowledge that comes from insufficient grounding in the basic disciplines -- history and math and science and literature. Trying to give students this grounding would be a lot harder than simply grabbing for the latest fad, but at least it would get us somewhere in the long run.

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