Interdisciplinary Learning, Secondary Style


Creating curricular threads across subjects

By Keith Mason, PhD

Interdisciplinary learning can be an exciting way to engage your students. While interdisciplinary lessons and units are more common at the elementary level, they can be effective at the secondary level and also encourage collegial collaboration.

Interdisciplinary learning: the benefits

Think of a sewing needle as a symbol for creativity. Educators can use their “sewing needles” to create curricular “threads” to bring together lessons and units that connect various subjects into a cohesive whole. The benefits of interdisciplinary learning can outweigh any problems when advance planning is present.

Concept-based curriculum can support interdisciplinary learning because its emphasis is on concepts along with facts and skills, unlike a traditional curricular approach. The benefits of concept-based curriculum compared to traditional curriculum are described as a three-dimensional versus two-dimensional focus.

Curriculum integration is also worthwhile because it fosters interdisciplinary learning, yet it is more flexible in that it can include any subject that supports a lesson or unit theme.

When implementing interdisciplinary learning, whether it be one lesson, a series of lessons, or a full unit, consider the following guidelines:

  • Choose subjects that are a natural fit.
  • Choose a creative title for your interdisciplinary lesson or unit that invites in-depth learning.
  • Create a semantic web with student input.
  • Determine how to assess student learning.
  • Design lessons aligned to standards, and choose materials that include collaboration with colleagues.
  • Teach or co-teach the lesson or unit.
  • Assess students through traditional tests or projects.
  • Evaluate your success and areas for improvement.
  • Make certain that the subjects you are highlighting are treated in depth. Superficial treatment is ineffective and undermines interdisciplinary goals.
  • Maintain the integrity of single subjects as well by utilizing interdisciplinary approaches in combination with intradisciplinary treatment.
  • Identify those national, state, and local standards in various subjects that promote and support interdisciplinary learning. Many of these standards and their accompanying frameworks can be useful when devising interdisciplinary lessons. For example, the National Foreign Language Standards includes one standard, “Connections,” that encourages bridging language study with other subjects

Collaboration with colleagues can be a joy, but the logistics must be thought out. Scheduling can be a challenge, but many who collaborate for interdisciplinary initiatives find it worthwhile. Consider the following options:

  • Team teach or teach alone with a colleague’s input.
  • Prerecord a colleague’s contribution to the lesson on video or a podcast for use during class or as homework.
  • Use a “flipped classroom” model by having students do assignments out of class to preserve class time for class discussion and group work.
  • Swap classes with a colleague so students benefit from both teachers’ input.

Interdisciplinary threads for lessons and units

A Spanish class that explores visual art. A language-arts class that delves into history. A French class that integrates culinary arts. These are just a few examples of interdisciplinary ideas that utilize two disciplines. Some disciplines are interdisciplinary in nature: humanities, STEM, and STEAM. Some subjects are taught alone to maintain their integrity and allow for in-depth learning. Technology can certainly be carefully integrated.

My first truly memorable interdisciplinary unit occurred in two of my Spanish classes when I used the musical Evita to enhance my Spanish curricula. We studied Argentine history, the Evita concept album, and the London and Broadway stage musicals. Students learned about tango dance and music, dialectal features of Argentine Spanish, and the heavy Italian presence in the Buenos Aires region. Students worked with the Madrid cast album sung in Spanish. They also wrote a song analysis in Spanish of one Evita song. This ended up being the first of several musical integrations.

After the Evita unit, I was invited by our musical directors to integrate school musicals into the curriculum over an eight-year period. I used the themes and songs of each musical to encourage learning and state standards. Connecting the musical to various secondary subjects created interdisciplinary threads. For each musical, I prepared study guides that offered suggested lesson ideas. As we progressed, more students and teachers became involved. I started small, but as each subsequent musical was staged, I fine-tuned my approach, undertaking projects in all my classes and serving as a resource for my colleagues. Every year, we won an Educational Impact Award from the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, for bridging musicals to a number of school subjects. For many students and instructors, this was the first experience of using musicals to inspire interdisciplinary learning.

Consider the following interdisciplinary and collaborative ideas:

Italian or Latin and Roman history: Romans contributed much to the world that we still benefit from today. A unit entitled “All roads lead to Rome” can explore Romans’ contributions in many areas.

Visual arts and culinary arts: A drawing or painting class could highlight foods and crops as art objects. Students can research various foods and crops and decide what they will feature based on an actual object or an internet photo.

School musical integration: As previously described, students learn via an interdisciplinary unit using a school musical or other musical. Themes, concepts, and songs from the musical, as well as subject-specific components, can be engaging and educational.

Mathematics integrated into art lessons: Students can create paintings or drawings that integrate geometric shapes.

Mathematics and science: Students of physics can learn about math formulae. When reviewing the formula for vectors, introduce trigonometry into a physics class, or vice versa, by playing a game of bocce or croquet and watching where the balls travel during the game. Most sports played by students involving a ball or puck could easily be integrated into either class.

Social studies and world languages: Students can explore culture and history related to the target language of study. This could include learning about cuisine, music, dance, visual arts, daily customs, greetings, religion, and body language.

Consumer education: Students can explore the chemistry of food preparation (both cooking and baking). They can explore the history of crops as explained in the book You Eat What You Are: A Study of Ethnic Food Traditions by Thelma Barer-Stein. This can work in culinary arts, world language, history, sociology, or anthropology.

Industrial arts: The history of furniture making, periods of furniture, and set construction for plays and musicals can be explored. The creation of furniture or theater sets could utilize a CADD program or be traditionally hand-rendered.

Social studies and language arts: Many classic novels and short stories are conducive to social studies and history lessons. For example, students could read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and learn about Victorian England in terms of culture, cuisine, Christmas traditions, and society. A time period in history could also serve as a unit with literature and the humanities used to enlighten students about the era.

Physical education and dance: Because both involve movement, students can learn about various national and international dances, perform the actual dances, and study the history behind each dance.

Religion and visual arts: Students can examine paintings, sculptures, architecture, and decorative details that relate to Christianity and Catholicism. This can include specific artists and architects, such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings and da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Religion and literature: The Bible can be read by students for its religious content, reinforcing Bible material, reading, and writing across the curriculum.

General music and history: Consider baroque, opera, operetta, jazz, ragtime, musical theater, choral music, classical music, popular, rock, country, liturgical, and international music within a historical context.

International night: An international night sponsored by world languages, social studies, art, and music (and dance) would be an ideal interdisciplinary experience. An evening event occupying one or more school locations could result in a powerful interdisciplinary experience for creators and audiences.

If you want interdisciplinary learning to work, do whatever it takes to make it successful. Take all the necessary steps by utilizing your own reflection, professional literature, blogs, creativity, and colleagues to help pave the way. Ultimately you can embrace interdisciplinary curriculum secondary style by creating curricular threads across subjects.


Recommended reading on curriculum integration:

Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom by H. Lynn Erickson, Lois A. Lanning, and Rachel French (Corwin Teaching Essentials, 2017)
Curriculum Integration by James Beane (Teachers College Press, 1997)


Keith Mason, PhD, based in New Providence, New Jersey, specializes in curriculum, language education, phonetics, Romance linguistics, and musicals across the interdisciplinary curriculum.

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