Teresa Swist

Why you need to spot the invisible elephant

TODAY Thursday April 27: Webinar is 4 pm – 5 pm (AEST). For more information and registration, please visit the Webinar page

Let’s make this very clear, students need to be taught by disciplinary experts. This research into the interdisciplinary expertise of teachers is not about putting the science teacher in the visual arts class.

But what we have discovered in our research is that students benefit from teachers with skills in making connections to different disciplines. That improves student understanding and engagement in other subjects. 

Discussions about what capabilities teachers need and how to prepare them for the profession have commonly concentrated on what knowledge and skills teachers need to be classroom-ready. This is evident in the current debates about the core content that should be prioritised in all initial teacher education programs. The focus of these discussions is effective teaching in specific subjects or curricula priority areas, such as literacy and numeracy. 

Simultaneously, it is well acknowledged that teachers need capabilities not only to teach in specific curriculum areas, but also engage in cross-curricula teaching related to complex contemporary topics, such as environmental, economic, social, and technological challenges. There is a need for developing students’ general capabilities and skill to apply and integrate knowledge from different disciplines and enable their agency to navigate through a complex and uncertain world. To enact these broader education goals, collaborating with colleagues, local community members, plus other organisations and experts is vital. Notably, a growing emphasis upon interdisciplinary research is not matched by university learning and teaching.

How can teachers engage in teaching practices that extend beyond their disciplinary specialisation? 

In this blog we report on key insights from the first stage of the “Developing Teachers’ Interdisciplinary Expertise” project which aims initially to identify the principal capabilities that teachers need when developing their students’ abilities to engage in productive interdisciplinary project work and then to create a framework, including a set of reusable design resources, for integrating the development of teachers’ interdisciplinary expertise in preservice and in-service teacher education. 

Some key insights from our consultation paper and initial findings from our consultation interviews with preservice and in-service teacher educators, and other experts and stakeholders, are outlined below. If you are interested to hear more, please join our webinar (see details further below).

Teachers’ interdisciplinary practices are multifaceted

Teachers’ interdisciplinary practices are multifaceted in terms of their foundation, focus, application, plus fusion with technologies. The interdisciplinary foundations of teaching are wide-ranging in that education as a professional field draws on knowledge from multiple disciplines, such as psychology, neuroscience, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, and others. Significantly, this relates to the understanding that many important topics pertinent in today’s society (e.g., sustainability, health, equity) are cross-curricular and cannot be understood and addressed without engaging with perspectives from multiple disciplinary domains and do not sit comfortably in a separate subject. This multifaceted focus aligns with increased worldwide attention to the development of students’ general capabilities or 21st-century competencies. For example, students’ ability to transfer the disciplinary knowledge that they learn in different subjects and apply it to solving real-world problems in authentic contexts is the ultimate aim of learning within and beyond the classroom. 

These teachers’ practices are interwoven with the increasing fusion of digital and  technologies across many facets of learning environments and educational management systems, which informs a hybrid, online/offline mix of pedagogical practices. The rapid  technological change more broadly across society aligns with the growth of attention to Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Interdisciplinary project-based STEM education is seen as essential for improving students’ interests and achievements in science and mathematics and addressing a growing shortage of professionals in STEM-based industries and services. 

Teachers’ interdisciplinary practices are like an invisible elephant in teacher education: big, important, but not well understood and sufficiently addressed. A clear framework mapping what teachers actually do and what capabilities they need nevertheless is important as it is a starting point for creating opportunities for effective professional learning. 

Existing barriers are both personal and environmental

Existing barriers to developing teachers’ interdisciplinary expertise are both personal and environmental. At the personal level, lack of pre-service and inservice teachers’ motivation, and agency could limit their engagement in learning for interdisciplinary teaching. Similarly, insufficient  teacher educators’ knowledge, skills, confidence or motivation to prepare teachers for interdisciplinary teaching — such as seeing interdisciplinary connections as adds-on to the discipline-focused teacher education — could be an important obstacle.

During the consultation interviews, experts also mentioned that narrow assumptions about interdisciplinarity, a teachers’ role, and schooling, as well as current assessment regimes could also inhibit teachers’ willingness to engage with interdisciplinary teaching practices and professional learning. In contrast, teachers’ attributes identified as key were flexibility, confidence, persistence, creativity, problem solving, and engaging with uncertainty. They also indicated the need to value educator autonomy, creativity, and professionalism — while also recognising the day-to-day pressures which may inhibit and constrain interdisciplinary work. 

At the environmental level, there are a range of stakeholder, organisational, and structural barriers. For instance, various stakeholders of teachers’ education, such as school and university leaders, external partners, and students, may implicitly — or explicitly — inhibit teachers’ interdisciplinary learning activities. In terms of organisational barriers, there are constraints relating to practical arrangements, such as:  the time needed for academics to develop high-quality courses for interdisciplinary teaching; practical constraints about embedding interdisciplinarity into disciplinary pre-service teacher education structure; lack of funds, time, or space for interdisciplinary professional learning; and, challenges associated with establishing sustainable partnerships and continuous professional learning.

During the consultation interviews, experts have shared their views about how existing curriculum constraints often impose boundaries around specific subjects not only in schools, but also teacher education programs — which ignores the underlying connections between disciplines and limits the space and time available to engage with interdisciplinary practices. Experts indicated that technology needs to be purposeful and used appropriately, and that there is an array of useful resources and websites which could be readily utilised for different interdisciplinary  projects in schools and teacher education (e.g. sustainability, astronomy). Furthermore, some participants highlighted barriers such as the increasing administrative burdens that teacher educators face linked to an intensified compliance and reporting culture, plus the realities of systemic pressures relating to teacher recruitment and retention. 

An ecological framework specific to interdisciplinarity is needed

The need to prepare teachers for interdisciplinary practices is well recognised in various policy documents and research literature. However, there have been surprisingly few models or frameworks that articulate what constitutes teachers’ expertise for these interdisciplinary practices (or specifically for interdisciplinary teaching). Some proposed  frameworks address related competencies, such as 21st century knowledge and skills in educator preparation and Integrating education for sustainable development in teacher education  but are not distinct to interdisciplinary teaching and do not discuss how interdisciplinary expertise is different from other expertises. The only existing  framework of Cross-curricular teaching is  focused on individuals and foregrounds teachers’ functional competencies necessary for interdisciplinary teaching.

There is increasing awareness about the need for system, activity-oriented frameworks focused on the outcome and process of learning within a larger system. They describe what teachers overall should be capable of knowing and doing and why but emphasise a holistic vision, principles and processes distributed across the system. For example, while the pedagogical and logistical aspects of learning are important, literature also suggests the value of bringing a focus upon epistemic and relational aspects which can enhance not only teachers’ interdisciplinary dispositions and understandings, but also joint planning and implementation. 

Our literature review shows that many pre-service and in-service teacher education programs for developing teacher capabilities for interdisciplinary education are often project-based and focus on pedagogical and logistical aspects of interdisciplinary curriculum development and implementation. While these elements are necessary, how these interrelate within a broader system and set of practices is often missing. Many consulted stakeholders have highlighted: the importance of the time necessary to authentically engage in interdisciplinary practices; learning from best practice, mentoring, peers, and other experts; the need for school and leadership to support such initiatives; the value of partnerships with external organisations, communities, and experts; plus, the critical need for more ‘hands on’, interactive opportunities to explore, create, and share together ways to leverage teachers’ interdisciplinary expertise. 

Knowledge sharing and adaptable resources are necessary to support this goal

Our consultation paper suggests that developing teachers’ interdisciplinary expertise calls for a multifaceted approach. This requires a framework that articulates the scope of interdisciplinary expertise and enabling conditions that address the barriers. Key suggestions for professional learning include engaging teachers in collaborative professional development with colleagues, interdisciplinary experts and external partnerships who have different disciplinary backgrounds,  including engaging with the voices and ways of knowing of those who have been underrepresented in Western academic knowledge. Significantly, such professional learning cannot be done in one unit or course, and is likely to involve multiple activities and interwoven pathways (most relevant to a specific context, time, and purpose). 

Many consulted experts have also emphasised that there is no recipe, or formula, for developing teachers’ interdisciplinary expertise. However, certain ‘patterns’ are apparent. First, there is a need for places where teacher educators and teachers can find and share resources, plus explore ideas related to interdisciplinary practices and grow a community of practice. Second, approaches to interdisciplinary teaching should be tailored, or adapted, to specific school contexts and spaces. Third, a diverse range of professional learning opportunities for preservice and in-service teachers’ participation is needed, so as to foster interdisciplinary thinking that spans professional goals, practices, and needs. In combination, these patterns have the potential to support a growing community of practice toward developing teachers’ interdisciplinary expertise. 

Hear more, have your say, or get involved

As a part of our consultations, we will host an open webinar in which we will share key findings about what constitutes teachers’ interdisciplinary expertise and how its formation could be facilitated in preservice and in-service teacher education. We welcome everyone interested in teachers’ professional learning, including preservice and in-service teachers’ educators, educational leaders, school principals, head teachers, and innovative in-service and preservice teachers. We would like to hear additional insights and interest in further developing these ideas. 

The forthcoming webinar is 4 pm – 5 pm (AEST), Thursday 27th April 2023. For more information and registration, please visit the Webinar page

For any questions about this project, please email teresa.swist@sydney.edu.au 

From left to right: Teresa Swist is a Research Associate at University of Sydney and Queensland University of Technology, plus co-founder of the Education Futures Studio. She is on Linkedin and Twitter @teresaswist. Lina Markauskaite is a Professor of Learning Sciences and co-leader of the research theme Knowledge Practices and Cultures, the University of Sydney, Australia. She is on Linkedin and Twitter @markauskaite. Peter Goodyear is Emeritus Professor of Education at The University of Sydney and was founding co-director of the University’s Centre for Research on Learning and Innovation. He is on Linkedin and Twitter @petergoodyear. Cara Wrigley is currently Professor of Design Innovation within the Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology at The University of Queensland. She is on Linkedin and Twitter @drcarawrigley. Genevieve Mosely is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland. She is on Linkedin and Twitter @genevievemosely.