How Effective Is a Cross-disciplinary Approach To Teaching Science?

by Marshall Cavendish Education | Jun 05, 2017

Science is all around us. Does this call for cross-disciplinary teaching? 

Science is part of almost every aspect of our lives. Although we hardly need to think about it, science has in fact made the extraordinary possible and improved our lives. From the steps we take on the stairs to the push of a button on our mobile phones and the food or medications we consume, we have to rely on science to make it happen. Its indispensable role in society is indisputable. However, science cannot simply work in isolation and solutions to problems relating to it nowadays cannot simply be solved discretely. The complex interrelationship of science and technology in our society and urban systems has therefore prompted a greater need to relook at the way science is taught.

At the forefront of cross-disciplinary teaching and learning — Finland

On the topic of cross-disciplinary teaching and learning, many lessons can be learnt from Finland’s education system. Over the past few decades, instead of chasing national test scores to rank top in international assessments such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Finland’s education system has been focusing on imparting skills and knowledge that young people need for the workplace. This move was in response to the development of the Finnish economy, which needed much greater social and economic equality. With this integrated and holistic approach in place, creativity, problem-solving and collaboration are explored and nurtured in youths. These are traits that the new Finnish economy is seeking.

A call for cross-disciplinary teaching?

A disciplinary subject usually deals with and focuses on a specific field of knowledge, examining relatively deep into details and micro aspects while dealing less with a broad overview. The discipline of science alone can sometimes cover a wide area on spatial, geographical, environmental, functional, infrastructural, artistic, cultural, social and even political dimensions that could be grasped more adequately by means of cross-disciplinary approaches.

Cross-disciplinary teaching deals with connections, interrelations and interactions between different fields of knowledge without the integration from other disciplines by studying topics using foreign methodologies of unrelated disciplines, highlighting aspects of the first discipline by means of studying the other while delving into issues with a ‘big picture’. Examples of cross-disciplinary approaches are studies of physics of music or politics of ecology. Such an approach of not studying the discipline in sequestration but with cross-disciplinary knowledge across different fields is especially important for interdisciplinary professions such as medicine, architecture and environmental or town planning that students may take up in future.

While isolated teaching and learning may have served the academic needs of older generations, it is certainly not going to be adequate for the present and future needs of students in the 21st century especially with the pace that the world is keeping up to and the speed at which technology is advancing. Meaningful learning that provides for expression, experimentation and discovery across both aesthetic and academic disciplines is the current new trend in education to equip students with the necessary skills for multidisciplinary fields.

Research has demonstrated that student teams in cross-disciplinary with the given opportunity have successfully been supported through concepts learnt in their own disciplines and become more proficient in virtual communication (Brewer et. al., 2015). Cross-disciplinary teaching not only helps advance critical thinking but also cognitive development where students can develop an appreciation of the differences between disciplines on how to approach a problem using their discipline-specific with feasible evidence, which guides them to a broader understanding of the issue under investigation.

Teachers could also easily engage them in conversations leading to more complex issues as their structural knowledge is developed. Science curriculum that encourages cross-disciplinary teaching requires students to draw links between different disciplines would be the way to go in the current education landscape so as to encourage students to be more critical and creative thinkers or even become future torchbearers and inspire others. 

How effective is a cross-disciplinary approach to teaching Science?

Cross-disciplinary teaching in science, when circumvented and carried out successfully, would nevertheless be able to change the mindset of students and their perceptions towards learning science than learning the subject alone. This will certainly encourage them to become more interested and engaged in science learning and provide students more opportunities to hone their skills in other areas as they involve themselves in different disciplines.

Are you ready for cross-disciplinary teaching?

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  • Brewer, PE, Mitchell, MA, Sanders, R, Wallace, P & Wood, DD 2015, ‘Teaching and Learning in Cross-Disciplinary Virtual Teams’, IEEE Transactions On Professional Communication, Vol. 58, No. 2, pp. 208-229.
  • Johnson, B 2014, ‘Deeper Learning: Why Cross-Curricular Teaching is Essential’, Edutopia, Retrieved from 14 August 2014, <>.
  • Nelson, TH & Slavit, D 2007, ‘Collaborative inquiry among science and mathematics teachers in the USA: professional learning experiences through cross-grade, cross-discipline dialogue’, Journal of In-service Education, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 23–39.
  • Finland, O. E. C. D. (2010). Slow and Steady Reform for Consistently High Results. (2016). Retrieved 6 September 2016, from  

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