Transdisciplinary STEM: Teaching to Mirror the World

At what time do you start your mathematics for the day? At what time do you stop using critical thinking and solving problems for the day? On which day of the week do you investigate connections between the past and your world today? These questions are seemingly ridiculous to any adult. Life itself is not divided into segments in which content and skills are only used at specific times and days. So, it begs the question; why do we teach students in this way?

John Donne penned a famous poem stating, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This is how we need to begin to change our thinking when it comes to content in schools. In the world outside of education we use content, ideas, skills, and strategies across disciplines to make sense of situations, solve problems, and complete everyday tasks. Our pathways are not directed by the disciplines, but by larger concepts or ideas which utilize all the disciplines and their associated skills as tools to be successful in our endeavors.

STEM education as well as education as a whole, needs to move away from presenting content in highly focused silos centered around isolated disciplines. It is essential that STEM education shifts to a more inclusive model of pedagogy which helps prepare students for all aspects of the world, not just having disciplinary expertise. In a world where the internet and google don’t exist, content expertise is ultimately important; however, we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where employers don’t just value content expertise, but value “what else can you do” or “how can you use that expertise” even more. The world outside our classrooms is less about facts, and more about what our students can do with them.

Learning is essentially a matter of creating meaning from the real activities of daily living. 

David Stein, Situated Learning in Adult Education, 1998.

Learning truly happens within the context of the world, experiences in utilizing knowledge to create meaning. The idea of transdisciplinary STEM is based directly in this notion, that our students are better prepared for the world beyond the classroom when they understand the “why” of needing to know and the “how” of content connecting across disciplines. Basarab Nicolescu shares in The Transdisciplinary Evolution of Learning that in the 21stcentury we need to change our emphasis from just “Learning to Know” to a broader purpose. Teachers need to equally emphasize instruction on “Learning to Do”, “Learning to Live Together”, and “Learning to Be”; in other words, preparing students for life beyond the classroom.

In the classroom, the idea of transdisciplinary STEM presents itself in not what we teach, but how we teach. Centering our standards and content around larger concepts in which all disciplines can engage and add to understanding the connectedness of the real-world. Concepts such as Innovation and Interdependence provide opportunities for all disciplines to build learning experiences which mirror real-life and provide openings for students to make sense of the world around them. This pedagogy is not about forced integration of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics into other content areas, but about building understanding and meaning about the world through all disciplines. With all disciplines building connections to a larger concept, students begin to see the interconnectedness of content and skills in the world around them. Science skills, reading skills, mathematics skills, as well as the litany of skills labeled by a discipline become real-life skills in the context of learning. The walls come down and bridges are built.

No content is an island entire of itself; every content is a piece of the continent, a part of a transdisciplinary world. Transdisciplinary STEM not only provides students with the content and tools for success, but develops students into life-long learners who will leave a lasting impact on the world.

Author: Jonathan Gerlach

Global Consultant for STEM Education @STEMigo

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