Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What the heck is transdisciplinary learning?

As someone in charge of coordinating a program that is committed to a transdisciplinary approach, I shouldn't be asking this. I should know. But for too many years, I've relied too heavily on the shallow understanding that transdisciplinary learning simply is "learning that transcends the traditional subject areas".

But I'm not quite sure I deeply understand what that means, even after several years of workshops, reading, discussing and thinking about this question: What the heck is transdisciplinary learning? Which leads me to wonder, "Would I be able to recognize it, if I saw it?" Which most certainly means I can't help people adapt their written, taught and assessed curriculum to be more transdisciplinary, if it wasn't.

So, it was time to learn more about this concept (which is also unknown to both Microsoft & Google, as evidenced by that little squiggly red line that obnoxiously appears every time I type the word).

And, as someone who is committed to the social construction of understanding, I'm sharing my thinking with you all, that you might learn from and with me, and hopefully add to my understanding too.

My question: What can I listen and watch for so that I know a teacher/team/school is committed to and understands transdisciplinary learning?

To begin to answer my question, I pored over the IB document, The Primary Years Programme as a model of trandisciplinary learning


From that document, I synthesized that transdisciplinary learning is written, taught and assessed curriculum that:
  • is
    • engaging, relevant, challenging & significant
    • innovative
    • elusive
    • based in the exploration of real-life issues
    • authentic
    • a new vision & a new experience for learning
    • radically different from traditional education
    • universal (grounded in timeless, abstract, universal & transferable concepts)
    • embedded in the essential elements of the PYP, particularly transdisciplinary knowledge, key concepts & Approaches to Learning (this represents THE CORE of the PYP)
  • transcends
    • traditional subjects, but still has relevance across subject areas. Transdisciplinary learning isn't about getting rid of subject areas. Rather, it is complemented and supported by the subject areas.
  • connects
    • to what is real in the real world
  • may involve
    • what is commonly known as Problem-Based Learning
  • most definitely involves
    • collaboration (by teachers & by students)
    • problem-solving
  • allows
    • students to be autonomous
    • all students to contribute in a variety of ways
    • for spontaneous and easy connections across learning
    • students to acquire and sufficiently & competently apply Approaches to Learning, which are the tools of inquiry
    • students to explore our human commonality
  • promotes
    • lifelong learning, since it mimics learning we do in real life
    • an awareness of the commonality of the human experience
  • focuses on
    • issues
    • broad perspectives
    • deep understanding of timeless, abstract, universal and transferable concepts
    • a local issue or problem that also has global implications
  • demands
    • students work individually & in groups of different sizes and different make-ups for different reasons
    • students to be actively constructing meaning through inquiry
    • that the relationships between the teacher & student changes
    • higher-order thinking
    • participation/involvement/engagement
  • explores
    • the inter-relatedness of complex issues
  • shows
    • students the relevance of what they're learning. No student or teacher doubts the authentic reason for learning what we're learning
  • forces
    • teachers out of their comfort zones
  • relates to
    • students' lives
  • eliminates
    • redundancy
  • values & supports
    • all students, equally
Based on this synthesis, I wanted to develop a checklist that I could use to help me when observing in classrooms and perhaps teachers could use too as a self-assessment. (Disclaimer: I can imagine that some of my many astute colleagues in the PYP community will balk at the idea of reducing the very complex idea of Transdisciplinary Learning into a simple checklist; but I'm going to give it a go anyway).

When watching or reflecting on a collection of lessons or on a unit, ask:

Were students: 
  • involved, engaged, participating? (C3.5)
  • exploring a real-life, authentic issue? (C2.6a) Was the issue/problem a local one, with global connections? (C2.7)
  • focused on constructing an understanding of timeless, abstract, universal and transferable concepts? (C3.1a, C3.6)
  • collaborating in groups? Did they use different grouping methods throughout? (C3.10a, C3.14a)
  • having to collaborate? Did the teacher have to collaborate in preparation? (C1.2)
  • independent & autonomous? Did this take the teacher out of her/his comfort zone? Did s/he feel out of control at times? (C3.2, C3.5)
  • obviously studying one subject-area in particular? Were students able to make spontaneous connections to other learning? (C3.1b)
  • acquiring and applying the tools of inquiry (Approaches to Learning)? (C1.1c, C2.1d, C3.1a)
  • exploring multiple perspectives? (C2.8, C3.6)
  • understanding and thus able to articulate why they were learning what they were learning? (C3.13)
  • able to contribute? ALL students? (C3.7, C3.10)
Although I've taught in or coordinated a PYP for six years and I've visited with other PYP practitioners and visited other PYP schools, my experience is that Transdisciplinary Learning remains elusive. I look forward to continually deepening my understanding of this essential component of the IB Primary Years Programme.

4 comments:

  1. I have long thought that the work being done with Making Thinking Visible is a natural fit with arts integration learning. The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has a program known as Partners in Education dedicated precisely to the ideals you write about. In Colorado, we are working to integrate the principles of an IB program with arts integration practices, and it has been a logical extension of the learning. Here is a link to one of the Kennedy Center resources: https://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/educators.aspx

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  2. Understanding transdisciplinary was deep, but the checklist is awesome. Thanks

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  3. Thank you for this post. I agree that the whole concept of transdisciplinary learning is elusive. It's everything and all encompassing. How can you beat that? How can you get a handle on something that huge? More questions than answers, but I think that's the nature of the beast!

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  4. Interesting reading. Coming from a mainstream Scottish educational context, I am still struggling to differentiate 'transdisciplinary learning' from my understanding of intersdisciplinary learning - a core approach in Scottish schools. I know the IB states that transdisciplinary learning is set within a real-life context... but so is IDL. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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