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Putting theory into practice: The value of an interdisciplinary approach to teaching

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Disciplines and interdisciplinarity

Historically, academic disciplines were defined through the departments within which they were taught at universities, with the same subject separation mirrored in the UK school system. For example, history and biology are single academic disciplines that are also taught as single subjects in schools, falling within the higher-level humanities and sciences faculties, respectively. However, what is and what is not an academic discipline becomes increasingly hard to define when academic departments spanning a range of subject areas exist, such as ours – the Department of Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media (TFTI) at the University of York. You could argue that TFTI is an arts department. But the way we teach, the manner in which we conduct our research and the backgrounds of the academics within TFTI mean that we could also be considered a humanities, science and engineering department.

We offer four undergraduate degrees (BA business of the creative industries; BSc film and television production; BSc interactive media; and BA theatre: writing, directing and performance), alongside a range of Masters degrees. The degrees may seem idiosyncratic, but they are unified through the concept of stories and storytelling and through interdisciplinarity. In our teaching, we take material, processes, values, practices, tools and techniques from a range of disciplines, and combine them within their particular area of focus. As a result, for TFTI a top-level designation of a broad discipline is hard to define, never mind identifying an unambiguous academic subdiscipline that accounts for the degrees on offer. By its very nature and definition, we work and teach in an interdisciplinary space.

Interdisciplinary teaching can be defined as ‘the capacity to integrate knowledge of two or more disciplines to produce a cognitive advancement in ways that would have been impossible or unlikely through single disciplinary means’ (Boix Mansilla et al., 2000, p. 219). That is, by using an integrated approach to teach material that is often taught within a single discipline, students are able to develop a range of skills at a higher level than by using an approach limited to a single discipline. The cognitive advancement in skills comes through synthesising ideas from multiple disciplines, incorporating these across the discipline boundaries, leading to progression in knowledge and understanding. This contrasts with a multidisciplinary approach, where material is taken from different fields without the synthesis needed to achieve such cognitive advancement (Choi and Bak, 2006).

The value of interdisciplinarity is increasingly recognised within both research (Wernli and Darbellay, 2016) and teaching (Woods, 2007). But is there similar value in interdisciplinarity within secondary-level teaching? And, if so, how could this be achieved? In this article, I describe teaching practices in TFTI to demonstrate the value of an interdisciplinary educational approach. I also explore how aspects of this approach might be adopted within secondary education to prepare students to enter interdisciplinary degree programmes at a tertiary level.

Interdisciplinarity in TFTI

In TFTI, we embrace an interdisciplinary, boundary-crossing teaching philosophy, where theory and practice go hand in hand. When releasing the iPad 2, Steve Jobs said ‘technology alone is not enough – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing’ (Jobs, 2011). This quote epitomises the interactive media BSc, which is a relatively nascent field incorporating material from computer science, art and design, engineering, psychology, sociology and media studies. Students learn how to design and build a range of types of interactive technological system, while embracing critical analysis within their work. By taking material from a variety of fields and applying it to a particular context, the quality of the work produced is typically better, more thoughtful and occasionally more provocative. For example, when learning web development, students learn the psychological Gestalt principles of visual perception, to allow them to visually structure their site content through implicit associations without resorting to the use of lines and borders. Here, knowledge of psychology leads to better visual designs and ultimately more usable websites.

In arts-based film and television production degrees, the focus is often on developing graduates trained especially for the film and television industries by teaching students how to write, direct, operate cameras, edit, etc., as popular training grounds for future industry professionals. Alternatively, students can take degrees that use a humanities teaching style, focusing on the academic, analytical side of the industry, e.g. through studying cinema history within a film studies programme. In TFTI, rather than focusing on either the arts or the humanities approaches, we emphasise interdisciplinarity. Students not only learn how to write, shoot and edit films and television shows, but they also learn the scientific fundamentals of lighting, cameras and sound, together with critical analysis skills. Images placed on screen carry an abundance of meaning and association beyond their function in a story; the better budding filmmakers and TV producers understand this, and the more culturally aware their stories are, the more ambitious their approach and the higher the quality of resultant work.

Similarly, our theatre degree has been designed to encourage students to work beyond the traditional arts or humanities focus of many traditional theatre and drama programmes. Alongside developing practical skills (e.g. playwriting, stage management or lighting design), students learn to understand the historical and political settings of texts, and are encouraged to either work within that contextualisation or push the boundaries by going beyond the period. By teaching students critical thinking skills beside those traditionally adopted in arts programmes, the work created is more thoughtful, challenging and stimulating for the audience.

Finally, students on the business of the creative industries programme learn material that is conventionally taught within more general business and management degrees but tailored towards theatre, film, television and interactive media sectors. The teaching comes from a rigorous academic perspective while applied to the different context areas, providing the option to learn subject-specific content from the different creative industries. This ensures that if, as graduates, they become the producers of the future, they will have a thorough understanding of the perspectives of the creative industry professionals that they are working with.

On a practical level, we achieve interdisciplinary learning and teaching in a variety of ways. All our programmes have been developed using a top-down curriculum development approach – the York Approach/Pedagogy (Robinson, nd) – which sets key learning outcomes (LOs) for each degree programme and creates modules and content that progresses the students to achieve those outcomes. This approach allows academics to identify which modules contribute to which programme LO and make explicit connections between different aspects of module content, including from modules that have come before, those that are running in parallel and those that will be taught in future. This cross-referencing of content and encouragement of students to apply knowledge from even disparate-seeming modules within their work supports the interdisciplinarity we are striving for.

We also teach in cross-disciplinary teaching teams, where close communities of academics deliver the content from both within and across the four undergraduate degree programmes. For example, some modules are taught to students across the degree boundaries, e.g. students on interactive media and film and television production learn story content together, while other modules are share-taught across academics specialisms, e.g. academics with both theatre and film and television backgrounds teach on the directing for theatre, film and television module. This teaching approach differs to that on traditional combined degrees (e.g. a BSc in computer science and mathematics), where modules are taught within the separate departments, resulting in minimal opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas, methods and approaches between the disparate subject areas.

Interdisciplinarity in schools

Teaching in UK secondary schools usually takes a single-subject, single-teacher approach, so opportunities for interdisciplinarity may perhaps seem somewhat limited. However, with almost 90 per cent of students entering UK universities coming from state schools (Busby, 2019) and universities pushing the value of teaching students in an interdisciplinary manner (e.g. see University of Plymouth teaching guidance), it is worth exploring how teaching in schools could prepare students for learning in this way.

If teachers are able to take a holistic view of the material taught across a year and explicitly cross-reference content within their own teaching, this will prepare students for the interdisciplinarity they may face at university. For example, teachers might encourage students to explore how and why they could use knowledge of maths within their art projects to produce, for example, geometric pieces, or apply biological understanding of physiology within their design work.

Interdisciplinary thinking can be taught using ‘innovative approaches that promote dialogue and community, problem-posing and problem-solving, and critical thinking’ (Klein, 2006, p.14). Some key strategies that encourage interdisciplinarity are team-teaching and team-planning, clustered and linked sessions, theme- or problem-focused sessions, projects and using case studies (Klein, 2006).

Teacher collaboration is an important mechanism for cross-boundary teaching, which can be facilitated through developing teacher communities that are ‘a group of teachers who are socially interdependent, who participate together in discussion and decision making, and share and build knowledge with a group identity, shared domain, goals and interactional repertoire’ (Brouwer et al., 2012, p. 340). Using co-teaching approaches with interdisciplinary teaching teams, rather than single-teacher, single-subject teaching, seems to be more prominent in North American schools than in the UK. There are a number of pedagogic articles and case studies (e.g. Applebee et al., 2007 and Murawski, 2009) and a further article focused on the Dutch education system (Meirink et al., 2010) that make useful starting points in considering how to introduce a co-teaching system.

In conclusion, interdisciplinarity, achieved through integrating theory and processes from a range of disciplines into creative practices through team or co-teaching, whatever the medium, benefits the quality and value of the work that is produced. And therefore, any encouragement of students to synthesise material across and between subjects, even if they seem to be disparate, leads to higher-quality outcomes from students, and later graduates, with a broader theoretical basis and underpinning to their work. There is, perhaps, a legitimate concern that by teaching in this manner, our graduates are ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. However, in this article, I hope to have demonstrated that by embracing an interdisciplinary approach, our students’ learning prepares them well for a range of careers across the creative industries, and at a higher attainment level than if taught using a more single-subject approach.


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Woods C (2007) Researching and developing interdisciplinary teaching: Towards a conceptual framework for classroom communication. Higher Education 56(6): 853–866. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-006-9027-3.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas