The Interdisciplinary Curriculum:
Models for Developing a Learning Experience

Theresa Purcell Cone, Brunswick Acres School, Kendall Park, NJ
Stephen L. Cone, Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ
Co-authors: Interdisciplinary Teaching Through Physical Education, Human Kinetics, 1998  or


    Interdisciplinary learning is an educational process in which two or more subject areas are integrated with the goal of fostering enhanced learning in each subject area.  Implementing an interdisciplinary learning program brings teachers together to create exciting learning experiences for students as well as discovering new ways of delivering the curriculum.  The concept of interdisciplinary learning acknowledges the integrity and uniqueness of each subject area, yet recognizes the interrelationships of one subject to another.

    Interdisciplinary learning is nourished by the content offered by multiple subject areas.  The specific content of each subject is composed of skills and knowledge that comprise the "what is integrated".  Skills are the abilities or techniques a student learns and uses to perform a movement or demonstrate a concept or idea, such as throwing, measuring and drawing.  And knowledge is defined as concepts, principles, theories, beliefs or topics inherent to each subject area.  There is no one model that describes all the ways interdisciplinary learning can be delivered.  You may also find that implementing an interdisciplinary learning experience requires rearranging the order of your teaching to coincide with a concept being taught in another subject area.  The opportunities are endless and interdisciplinary learning serves as a continual source of energy feeding the educational process.

    Teachers, like students, benefit from interdisciplinary learning as it builds understanding of other subject areas and fosters appreciation of the knowledge and expertise of other staff members.  It facilitates teamwork and planning as teachers work together to weave a theme across several subject areas.  In addition, students benefit when they see teachers working in different subject areas, teaching in different classroom space and making similar points across subject areas.  Their learning is reinforced in a powerful and meaningful way.  As a result of participating in and observing a variety of interdisciplinary activities in the school, students begin to realize how the skills and knowledge in one subject area can transfer into another and, ultimately, be applied to life experiences.

    National, state and local Standards in physical education and dance offer a road map for competence and educational effectiveness focusing on student learning.  Key concepts of the Standards include support for interdisciplinary learning as well as opportunities where teachers can work together to deliver an integrated curriculum.  The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (1995) document on Standards for Beginning Physical Education Teachers, as well as the National Dance Association’s (1994) National Standards for Dance Education require that teachers have content knowledge allowing them to incorporate concepts and strategies into other subject areas.  While none of the Physical Education Standards, Moving into the Future: National Standards for Physical Education (NASPE, 1995), directly mention the concept of interdisciplinary education, there is ample indirect support.  Much of what we inherently do already is interdisciplinary in nature.  For example, the application of movement concepts and principles to the learning and development of motor skills gives support to the many scientific principles that have application in physical education and dance.  Also, learning to understand and respect differences among people provides support for learning inclusive of gender and cultural perspectives.  And, reading, writing and speaking components of the language arts standards are mentioned in the sample benchmarks and assessment examples as means to demonstrate proficiency in meeting the physical education standards.

    You may have already had the opportunity to participate in an interdisciplinary learning experience within your own physical education program or through a collaborative experience with a colleague.  Although your planning included appropriate goals, objectives and exciting activities, the question remains; did the interdisciplinary learning experience address any of the Standards?  It is important and useful to keep the standards central in your planning process so your ideas are academically grounded and you can justify the time, effort and resources needed to implement the interdisciplinary experience.  You may not be able to meet all the standards in a single learning experience; however, one or two standards may be emphasized in one or more disciplines.

    The following two examples illustrate how an interdisciplinary learning experience can simultaneously meet multiple standards from multiple disciplines.  (1) Standards from three different disciplines can be addressed in this experience.  The objectives of the lesson for a kindergarten class is for the students to listen to a story read by the physical education teacher and then explore different movements that express the ideas from the story.  This scenario meets the physical education standard that includes self-expression, the dance standard that speaks to creating and communicating meaning, and the language arts standard that addresses listening and interpreting information.  Using standards in the planning of this experience helped to define the direction and make meaningful interdisciplinary connections among the three affected disciplines.  (2) Math and physical education standards are met in this example.  The objectives of the lessons for the fourth grade class are for students to participate in a gymnastics lesson focused on creating a sequence of balances using the geometric angles (acute, right and obtuse) at the same time that the fourth grade teacher is teaching angles in the math unit.  The interdisciplinary lesson addresses the physical education standard focused on applying movement concepts and principles to the learning and development of motor skills, and supports the fourth grade teacher’s math standard of using mathematics with other disciplines and in everyday experiences.

    We have experimented with a variety of approaches to interdisciplinary teaching and have developed three models that function on a continuum from simple to complex.  The three interdisciplinary teaching models, Connected, Shared, and Partnership provide approaches for integrating the skills and concepts of two or more subject areas.  These models will help you clarify your intent and objectives for using interdisciplinary teaching.  They are not meant to be finite models that serve every type of interdisciplinary teaching experience, but, rather, as guides to integration with meaning and purpose.  You may develop interdisciplinary learning experiences that do not fit neatly into one of the three models and you may need to overlap or adapt the models to meet your particular situation.


    The Connected Model utilizes a simple approach where content from one subject area is used to augment or supplement the learning experience in another subject area.  For example, you are teaching folk dances from Mexico in a physical education lesson and you use a map to show where the countries are located as a means of connecting it with Social Studies.  The Shared Model emphasizes the linkage of similar topics, concepts or skills from two or more subject areas taught collaboratively with another teacher.  To continue the folk dance example in a Shared Model, the concept of Mexican cultural traditions would be taught concurrently in the physical education and social studies lessons.  The folk dances will emphasize the cultural traditions and the social studies lesson will focus on how traditions are part of holidays.  The Partnership Model, even more ambitious, provides a strategy for complex unification of content from two or more subject areas.  To carry the example further, both teachers plan and team-teach a unit on Mexico including lessons on the folk dances, cultural traditions, games, music, visual art and foods.

    Another way of viewing interdisciplinary teaching and a vivid description of the continuum of these models is using the image of "fruit cocktail".  The connected model demonstrates the rudimentary form of fruit cocktail where the individual fruit retains its individual identity.  When you ultimately move to the partnership model you are experiencing integration more like "fruit cake" than fruit cocktail.  The disciplines persist in recognizable chunks that make sense, but they are imbedded in a pervasive and unifying batter in which raw materials are unrecognizably transformed.  Each of the models is designed to give the teacher the structure needed to link one subject area to another.  In your planning process, select a model(s) that will offer the most appropriate means to achieve the goals you identify for the learning experience.

    You will have many questions as you begin your new initiative.  Some questions will have fairly easy answers while others will be answered as you become more engaged in the planning process.  Ultimately, these answers will give you the information needed to develop a meaningful lesson or unit.  Begin by asking yourself: What subjects do I want to integrate?, Where do I find information to use?, Who will I work with?, What is the best way to create a learning experience?, What will students learn in each of the subject areas and how can the learning be assessed?, and How does integrating subjects meet the Standards for each subject area?

    When you are ready to select the content of the interdisciplinary learning experience, choose the knowledge and skills you want to teach, rather than fall into the trap of using activities that may, at best, result in a superficial or contrived connection.  Begin with one lesson or a part of a lesson focused on a specific topic or single idea.  Set reasonable objectives for the learning experience and move to the next step of gathering content information and materials.  Try to develop a sense of awareness as to when there is a natural relationship between subjects.  As you design the lesson, keep in mind that the students should feel like the activities are fun and exciting, and see meaningful links between the subject areas.  You will need to determine if the activities can fit into your current schedule or if an adjustment can take place between colleagues or if a change is needed school-wide.  Identify the materials and equipment you will need and discuss the type of space you will use for a successful experience.  Finally, plan for how you will organize students to work individually or in groups, how you will attend to individual needs and learning styles, and ensure that everyone is actively involved.

Sample Learning Experiences Utilizing the Three Models

Connected Model - Physical Education and Science
Content Areas: Physical Education - Overhand throw for distance.  Science - Third class levers
Suggested Grade Level: 2 – 3
Standard addressed: Physical Education Standard #2, Applies movement concepts and principles to the development and learning of motor skills.
Description: In this learning experience the teacher has instructed the students on how to perform a mature overhand throw for distance.  The instruction includes an explanation of how an overhand throw uses the principles of a third class lever system.  The science principle is included to illustrate the biomechanical operation of the arm in a throw.  The student can see how a science principle is used in a practical situation.  The instruction is followed by time for the students to practice the overhand throw.  The teacher emphasizes the following performance criteria during instruction: side to target, steps with opposite foot, elbow out and back, and follow-through.
Assessment Instruments: (1) The teacher uses a performance checklist to score how well students use mature form when performing the overhand throw for distance.  The assessment will show the teacher how many students have mastered the skill and how many need more practice and instruction.  (2) To assess the students understanding of the connection between the physical skill of the overhand throw and the Science principle of third class levers, the student writes in their Physical Education journal about how an overhand throw uses the principles of a third class lever.  The teacher will read the journal entries and comment to each student about their description.

Shared Model - Physical Education and Mathematics
Content Areas: Two teachers are both teaching about the concepts of symmetry and asymmetry during the same time period.  In the Physical Education program the concepts are taught using shapes and balances in gymnastics and in the Mathematics program they are taught in a Geometry lesson focused on dividing the space of triangles, squares and rectangles.
Suggested Grade Level: 4 – 6
Standard addressed: Physical Education Standard #1, Demonstrates competency in many movement forms and proficiency in a few movement forms.
Description: In the physical education class, partners create a gymnastics routine using three different static balances that demonstrate symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes.  Together they explore making symmetrical and asymmetrical balanced shapes at low, medium, and high levels.  Next, develop and refine a gymnastic sequence demonstrating smooth transitions using three shapes.  In the Geometry lesson, the mathematics teacher presents a task that asks students to find different ways to divide the space of a triangle, square and rectangle so the space is symmetrical and then asymmetrical.
Assessment Instruments: The gymnastics lesson is completed using a peer assessment.  Partners observe another set of partners performing their gymnastics routine and score the routine based on a set of criteria and a scoring rubric that has been developed by the teacher and students at the beginning of the lesson.  An example of the rubric is as follows:
Excellent: Partners include symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes in their routine.  They can hold all three balances for a count of three and move smoothly from one balance to another.
Good: Partners include symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes in their routine.  They hold two balances for a count of three or hesitate when moving from one balance to another.
Needs Improvement: Partners do not include both symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes in their routine or hold only one balance for a count of three.
Assessment of the geometry lesson would include each student drawing their solutions demonstrating how each shape can be divided into three symmetrical and three asymmetrical shapes.  The scoring rubric would describe the number of accurate drawings needed for each level of achievement.  For example, a level of Outstanding, 16 -18 accurate drawings, Very Good, 13 - 15 accurate drawings, Satisfactory, 10-12 accurate drawings and Needs Extra Help, 9 or fewer accurate drawings.  After each lesson is assessed the scores for each child from the gymnastics lesson and the geometry lesson are collated to evaluate the student's understanding of the concept of symmetry and asymmetry in different situations.

Partnership Model - Physical Education, Language Arts and Music
Content Areas: The Physical Education teacher, the Music teacher, and the classroom teacher plan and team teach a learning experience to meet the objective that students will develop collaborative skills that contribute to successful friendships.  All three teachers present activities that result in the students writing poetry on the theme of collaboration in friendship and then using the poems as inspiration for creating instrumental music and dances.  Collaboration is the focus for all activities during the creative process as well as when presenting the final products.  The learning experience will conclude with a performance that includes a choral reading of the poems, an instrumental music piece composed and played by a small group of students, and a dance performed to the music piece.
Suggested Grade Level: 4 – 6
Standards addressed: Physical Education Standard #5, Demonstrates responsible, personal and social behavior in physical activity settings.  Physical Education Standard #7, Understands that physical activity provides the opportunity for enjoyment, challenge, self-expression, and social interaction.
Assessment Instruments: The teachers have developed several instruments for evaluating the student's understanding of the concept of collaboration that include student self assessment, teacher assessment and peer assessment.
 Self-Assessment - Before the learning experience, each student completes a set of questions related to their understanding of the meaning of collaboration and when it appears in their daily life.  At the end of the learning experience, they complete a similar set of questions that asks them to describe how collaboration was used in the activities and to comment on their personal feelings about collaboration during the learning experience.  The teachers review the responses with each student in a personal conference.
 Teacher Assessment - The teachers identify the collaborative behaviors they want to see exhibited by the students during the creation of the music composition and the dance choreography.  They develop a checklist and record which behaviors they observe and how many times they appear.  Each teacher takes a turn to observe and assess a student group while the other two teachers work with the students.
 Peer Assessment - Students view a videotape of the performance and write or draw a picture to describe a part of the performance where collaboration is used.

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