Interdisciplinary innovation

Lenses on Lear

Joe Holroyd reflects on a model for effective Interdisciplinary Learning in his school’s IB Diploma Programme, which involves Literature and Film students working together and has potential to operate across multiple domains. 

Interdisciplinary dilution?

Inquiry, interdisciplinary learning, concept-based learning, creativity, innovation . . . . . these are all words we hear a lot about in progressive educational systems such as the IB. In the PYP, inquiry and conceptual understanding is at the core of unit planning. Subject disciplines are not approached as traditional, discrete entities, instead, there is a focus on learning about different disciplines together, as one: transdisciplinary learning.

The MYP subject groupings involve greater compartmentalisation of learning, but there is still time dedicated – in theory – to the development of interdisciplinary units of work.

However, it is at at the Diploma Programme level – particularly in the high stakes exam-factories in cities like Hong Kong – that compartmentalisation truly takes hold as the imperatives of subject specialist curriculum content seem largely, to preclude opportunities for ambitious interdisciplinary learning.

 Finding common ground

How can we create really innovative interdisciplinary learning spaces at this level?? Perhaps by leveraging the commonalities that subject specialists share, of which conceptual understanding is the most important. When students are able to transfer their conceptual understandings and dynamically to perform their understanding in different contexts, they are really engaging in deep learning.

An Interdisciplinary Model: Lenses on Lear

What follows is a possible model for an innovative, concept-based interdisciplinary learning cycle in the Diploma that not only worked on its own merits, but added value in the crudest terms for determining academic success, and was backwards by design.

Final Year DP Literature Students at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong have been studying Shakespeare’s King Lear, and critiquing the play through various ideological lenses: feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic etc. So far, so abstract and “academic”. However, we also wanted students to find voices that are authentically ‘persuasive and independent’ in the language of the IOC (Individual Oral Commentary) Assessment Criteria

At the same time, First Year DP Film Students were in the exploratory phase of developing their portfolios. They had just been introduced to the concept of ideology as something that is always inherent to film language – but we wanted them to express this understanding ‘collaboratively as creative risk takers on a variety of filmmaking exercises and experiments’ – in the language of the new DP Film Curriculum.

By bringing the two groups together and asking them to share their growing conceptual undertanding to each other through a simple stimulus-response cycle, as articulated in this short video-essay, they found their own authentic voices:


Innovative models of Learning

We also found we were not alone. In a recent discussion with our leadership team about innovative models for learning, Dan Huttenlocher, Dean of Cornell Tech, shared their model whereby 30% of a post-grad’s study time is given over to interdisciplinary product development work. For example, in creating a new online App, a student pursuing a Master’s degree in Law will be responsible for intellectual property considerations, and must work with the Computer Science student responsible for coding. The team learning & output here is interdisciplinary, but they each work primarily within their own subject specialism. This is also, of course, increasingly the nature of the working world. It will always be gifted specialists who can work in diverse teams that will be in most demand by successful, innovative industry leaders and entrepreneurs.

Playing the expert.

Greater even than the products though, is the process of this stimulus-response cycle that drives such deep learning. In sharing a subject’s specialist understanding with a non-expert, everyone gets to play ‘the expert’, and in doing so they develop their own confidence and understanding. The cycle then continues to the next phase of conceptual development – with each of the subject areas all the richer for it. In terms of those crudest measures of success – the IB Diploma Scores – both the Film and Literature cohorts were without question amongst our highest ever scoring students.

Wider applicability

There is no doubt that Literature and Film are subject areas with a lot of natural overlap anyway but we think the approach can be used with a wide range of subjects.

Visiting my colleague Darrell Sharpe’s biology class, I found he was essentially using the same pedagogical logic to deepen conceptual understanding by coaching students to find ways of expressing a conceptual understanding through different modalities.

From book, to board-work, through plasticine figurines – Darrell’s students deepened their engagement with the various complex concepts in evolutionary theory by expressing them in different ways.

Now you try!

I’d like to suggest that this model of thinking can be applied between and across any subject areas.

We must of course be aware that the DP is neither the PYP nor MYP and that DP teachers must find their own ways to be innovative in their teaching and learning models.

How could you make it work within and across the DP classes at your school?


Mr. Joe Holroyd
IB Coordinator, Canadian International School of Hong Kong

Lenses on Lear formed the central case study of an IB Global Webinar: Interdisciplinary Learning through Film


Feature image by Dim Hou from Pixabay