Crossing boundaries, an interdisciplinary approach to the curriculum.

Educational theorists, Piaget and Bruner, observed that deeper learning occurs through active participation and experience. Research has shown us that our brains require ‘authentic, complex, multiple and concrete problem-solving experiences’ (Mathison & Freeman, 1997). We learn through experience and through problem-solving. The Key Competencies outlined by the NZ National Curriculum of: ‘Relating to others, managing self, participating and contributing’ (MOE, 2007) align with the ‘7 Principles of learning’; in- particular: the ‘Social nature of learning’ and ‘building horizontal connections’ (Dumont et al, 2010). An interdisciplinary curriculum ‘seeks to combine disciplines to enhance the learning’ emulating real life situations where we do not compartmentalise knowledge and experience into different subjects (Mathison & Freeman). At Waimea College, we are actively engaged in building a curriculum that makes ‘horizontal connections’ and builds upon the social nature of learning by incorporating an active, collaborative, project-based learning approach.

For several years, the English and Social Sciences departments have taken a multidisciplinary approach to the teaching of a research unit in year 9. It is multidisciplinary because it was led by our Head Librarian who recognised a need to teach generic research skills that could be transferred across subjects; she had a holistic view of what went on in the school as almost every subject moved through her library at some stage. As with the suggestions made by Laura MacLeod Mulligan (2015), three essential things needed to be in place in-order for this collaboration to work successfully:

  1. Workplace conditions: common space – the library & timetable allowances
  2. Qualities and attitudes: willingness to collaborate for the benefit of our students
  3. Common goals: skills overlap & topic choice

Figure 1 Our Local Good Sort, inspired by TVNZ

Crossing Boundaries

Whilst the students have enjoyed this combined unit of study, the problems associated with this approach are that it involves the individual to negotiate ‘time-consuming curriculum preparation’ (Jones, 2009).

In addition to small scale collaborations, the diagram below shows how the school culture and values pervade all aspects of our life; how we link to the wider community through programmes such as Trades, and how numeracy and literacy are the responsibility of all teachers.

Inter cross bound

The school has now taken a more deliberate and holistic approach to interdisciplinary collaboration. In 2018 we are running an enrichment programme for the year 9s and 10s that places the teacher in the role of facilitator, with a high degree of student self-management. Students will be helped to access the experts they need, within and beyond school, to enable them to complete a project based learning experience. Both year 9 and 10 will be timetabled for this simultaneously, allowing for blending of year groups, peer collaboration, peer mentoring and greater differentiation. In addition, students will also study core subjects. Both students and parents have shown a high degree of enthusiasm for this programme through their feedback to the original proposal and in their willingness to opt into the various units offered.

I am certainly looking forward to collaborating with colleagues from different subject areas in the creation of the course. The Enrichment Team have been instrumental in conducting research into best practice, outlining the learning values and expectations, consulting with whanau and devising a framework for us to work within. Because of the parallel timetabling, we will also have an opportunity to team teach, share our expertise and learn from each other. I am optimistic that as we adjust our teaching and learning mindsets, and work around the constraints of a school building designed for 20th century learning styles, we will continue to evolve our interdisciplinary curriculum.

by Tracy Simpson


Dumant, H., Istance, D., & Benavides, F. (2010). The Nature of Learning. OECD Centre For Educational Research,

Jones, C.(2009). Interdisciplinary approach – Advantages, disadvantages, and the future benefits of interdisciplinary studies. ESSAI7 (26), 76-81. Retrieved from

Mathison,S.. & Freeman, M.(1997). The logic of interdisciplinary studies. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, 1997. Retrieved from

Mulligan, L. M., & Kuban, A. J. . (2015). A Conceptual Model for Interdisciplinary Collaboration. Retrieved from

The New Zealand Curriculum. (2007). Wellington: Learning Media Limited.


One thought on “Crossing boundaries, an interdisciplinary approach to the curriculum.

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  1. Hi Tracy,

    You have written an interesting blog post. You mention the Jones’ 2009 paper, Interdisciplinary approach – Advantages, disadvantages, and the future benefits of interdisciplinary studies. In this paper Jones identifies that students can become independent, confident individuals who ‘learn how to learn’ and develop lifelong learning skills. I found a recent article that relates to what Jones states although from a very different perspective.

    The article examines the latest neurological research and how it will change the way students learn in the future. Instead of basing learning on traditional assumptions about teachers and students, education is beginning to be treated more like a science. A new discipline called neuroeducation is developing. It will apply scientific methods to curricula design and teaching strategies.

    Specifically, a focus on collaboration between students and emotional engagement between students and teachers. There will be many areas of educational change over the coming years which is both exciting and challenging for us as teachers. You highlighted the importance the school has taken to create a more deliberate and holistic approach to interdisciplinary collaboration.

    This article will give you a vision of what your enrichment programme may look like in the years to come.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

    Stewart McKean


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