Common Core Standards & Interdisciplinary Instruction

Where do the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) fit into interdisciplinary instruction? Some educators contend that the CCSS encourage interdisciplinary teaching; others argue that the standards are getting in the way.

Interdisciplinary instruction helps young adolescents make connections with what they are learning. In the early 1900s, John Dewey argued that subject matter was too fixed and that it needed to be differentiated in order to meet the needs of the child. He believed that if the skills were not connected, the students would be unable to apply them to real life.

Despite a stated purpose of CCSS that they help students make real-world connections in the classroom, do they truly promote interdisciplinary instruction?

We interviewed six teachers and one administrator at a middle school in the Midwest to find out what they have experienced firsthand with the implementation of CCSS.

All the middle school teachers we interviewed said the CCSS were a positive addition to the curriculum and that the standards supported interdisciplinary connections within the classroom. However, we noted a lack of actual interdisciplinary instruction at this school.

As we delved deeper, teachers said they didn’t have the time to plan interdisciplinary units; the school did not provide adequate professional development in interdisciplinary instruction strategies; and there was a stronger focus on implementing CCSS than on developing interdisciplinary thematic units.

Structural Challenges

At this middle school, professional learning communities (PLCs) meet weekly. Because the PLCs are based on content areas rather than grade-level teams, teachers have fewer opportunities to discuss interdisciplinary connections they could make within the curriculum. In addition, each teacher who was interviewed commented that the time in the PLC was typically used to discuss CCSS. With all the time and focus on Common Core, teachers said, there was no time to discuss interdisciplinary teaching.

Every teacher we interviewed commented on the importance of interdisciplinary teaching, but it simply wasn’t evident. One teacher shared, “Love it! Personally I would do that a lot if there was a way because … everything ties together …” The administrator saw value in interdisciplinary teaching but also cited roadblocks: “Unfortunately with the level of academic requirements that we have, we don’t get as many opportunities to do [interdisciplinary teaching] anymore.”

When we asked the teachers what could be done to incorporate interdisciplinary instruction, one teacher said, “…you have to have everybody on the same page. Everybody has to agree on everything … I don’t know how you do that.”

To integrate interdisciplinary teaching with the CCSS, not only do teachers need to participate in professional development activities to learn how to incorporate other disciplines, they may also need to stray from the textbook a little. The district’s insistence that teachers adhere to a very structured textbook-driven curriculum focused on CCSS discourages them from incorporating interdisciplinary teaching strategies. The teachers seemed to follow the textbooks rigidly throughout the school year as they struggled to become acquainted with the content.

Another way that CCSS has affected classroom curriculum is by taking away teachers’ planning time. The majority of the PLC time that teachers had is now focused on CCSS, leaving little time for any other curricular planning, including interdisciplinary units. One teacher, when asked if she felt interdisciplinary teaching could be easily integrated within the CCSS, said, “I do feel like it could [be integrated] if we were a smaller school.”

Looking Ahead

It will be interesting to see whether interdisciplinary teaching becomes more commonplace when the standards are more familiar. Right now, the CCSS are challenging to teachers who are trying to figure out the best way to integrate them—often relying on textbooks as their guides.

The Common Core standards are meant to be guidelines for what to teach, not how to teach. Interdisciplinary teaching can be integrated in middle level schools, but teachers need to ensure that it is done effectively. When the newness of CCSS has worn off, maybe educators can focus more on interdisciplinary instruction.

Michelle Schwartze is a middle school mathematics teacher at Saint Mark School in Peoria, Illinois. She is also working on her doctorate at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois.

Douglas Hatch is an associate professor of middle level education at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois.

Published in AMLE Magazine, May 2015.