What’s the best way to support teachers to become interdisciplinary?

By Teresa Swist, Lina Markauskaite, Peter Goodyear, Cara Wrigley and Genevieve Mosely

Read our first post on our interdisciplinary project: Why you need to spot the invisible elephant

Teachers need interdisciplinary expertise. Why? So they can navigate increasingly complex theory, evidence and practice landscape, so they can keep up with technological developments, such as AI, and so they can prepare students for the 21st century.

This is the case across both pre-service and in-service education contexts. It is  not just a matter of adding one one-hour professional learning session on what interdisciplinarity is. It requires a different way of thinking about teachers’ expertise and the ecosystem for teachers’ professional learning. It requires us to make room beyond subject matter.

In a previous AARE blog, we discussed how teachers’ interdisciplinary practices are multifaceted. There  are personal and environmental barriers and there is a need for an ecological framework, knowledge sharing and adaptable resources necessary to support this goal. 

Why is interdisciplinary research, education and innovation needed?

Globally, a recent study of 710 universities identified a big gap between interdisciplinary science talk and action

In this report, identified needs include: creating environments and structures to reward and diversify research; greater student awareness of interdisciplinarity in their curriculum; and, the need for broader education system innovation to integrate interdisciplinary studies (which are increasingly required for developing workplace skills). For example, integrating interdisciplinarity across programs has been identified as a way to foster communication, collaboration, problem solving and leadership skills

In Australia, the National School Reform Agreement is a joint agreement to lift outcomes in Australian schools – this process offers an opportunity to co-create an interdisciplinary ecosystem that develops teachers’ professional learning across micro, meso, and macro levels.

What are the policymaking and leadership implications of the “Developing Teachers’ Interdisciplinary Expertise” project?

It  aims initially to identify the principal capabilities teachers need when developing their students’ abilities to engage in  interdisciplinary work. From that it then aims  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 insights from our draft framework are outlined below. If you are interested to hear more, please join our webinar.

Creating an interdisciplinary ecosystem – research-practice insights

The framework developed in this project provides multi-level guidance for developing teachers’ interdisciplinary expertise across personal (micro), school (meso), and system (macro) levels. It therefore focuses on developing teachers’ knowledge for teaching that extends across these levels in an interdisciplinary ecosystem.  It also aims to  deepen their understanding and know-how of diverse interdisciplinary practices and foster their agency to participate in and shape interdisciplinary teaching practices and cultures beyond their classrooms.  

It also acknowledges the diversity of teacher interdisciplinary practices and contexts and does not prescribe a specific professional learning model. Models suited for particular professional learning purposes and contexts should be co-created by teacher educators in partnership with teachers and other stakeholders. 

However, developing interdisciplinary teaching expertise requires a systemic approach and also creating an ecosystem conducive to teachers’ interdisciplinary practices and learning. 

Such an approach should extend beyond a narrow focus on teachers. It should seek change across different aspects and levels of the educational ecosystem system, including institutional levels (e.g., school, university) and broader system-level changes (e.g., professional standards, accreditation requirements, initial teacher education policies, state and school-level policies and practices, curriculum). 

This requires not only individual teachers’ and teacher educators’ involvement but also the engagement of many other stakeholders (e.g., accreditation agencies, curriculum authorities, departments of education, school leadership, and leaders of initial teacher education programs). Therefore, building a shared vision of what constitutes an ecosystem conducive to teachers’ interdisciplinary practices and learning and how different actors can contribute to it is important. 

Considerations for policy and decision-making

How do we support teachers to become interdisciplinary?

Barriers to developing teachers’ interdisciplinary expertise are often related to environmental aspects, such as organisational and structural constraints.  

First, we need to create an interdisciplinary ecosystem which supports schools, teachers, and teacher-educators. This needs leaders and policymakers to understand and address the wide range of classroom, school, assessment, and logistical pressures facing teachers and teacher-educators. 

Teachers’ engagement in interdisciplinary practices and learning can be inhibited by numerous other day-to-day pressures that teachers face. Common constraints include a lack of interdisciplinary focus in the curriculum, high-stakes assessment and examination system, lack of time and other resources to develop interdisciplinary lessons, timetabling issues, and other logistical barriers that teachers cannot address alone.  

Similar challenges are faced by teacher educators who need time and other resources to develop high-quality, interdisciplinary courses and find ways to embed interdisciplinarity into pre-service teacher programs and accreditation requirements. For example, existing curriculum constraints often impose boundaries around specific subjects not only in schools but also in teacher education programs. Furthermore, intensified regulation of teachers’ preparation, compliance requirements, and other systemic pressures result in overcrowded teacher education programs and high administrative demands on teacher educators. While many of these requirements could be addressed by engaging pre-service and in-service teachers in interdisciplinary learning, lack of time, resources and system-level incentives for more creative reimagination of teacher education programs result in sub-optimal solutions limiting teachers’ interdisciplinary education.  

Individual pre-service and in-service teacher education cases with strong interdisciplinary focus already exist in Australia and other countries, evidencing that successful interdisciplinary professional learning is possible. However, such practices are not widespread; and not all teachers and, consequentially, students are benefiting. Some system-level decisions and changes are inevitably needed to ensure the broad reach of interdisciplinary education and equity. 

Interdisciplinary professional learning does not need to be added on top of everything else that teachers already are learning. Most likely, interdisciplinary professional learning could even provide a solution for addressing not always the most welcome, often competing, professional education demands and regulations, such as integrating the core content in the initial teacher education programs. However, this area of professional learning requires more ecological thinking about teachers’ professional learning and distributed leadership. 

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 framework findings for participants to discuss and provide feedback on. We welcome everyone interested in teachers’ professional learning, including preservice and in-service teachers’ educators, policymakers, educational leaders, school principals, head teachers, and interested 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), Tuesday 12 December 2023. For more information and registration, please visit the Webinar page.

For any questions about this project, please email

Teresa Swist is a Research Associate and Policy Officer at University of Sydney, plus a 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.

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