In response to a recent post, a former colleague wrote the following. Rather than just respond via email, I thought I’d post his thoughts (with his permission) and my response here.

One line especially piqued my interest —

I’m not ready to argue for the elimination of discipline-specific teaching, but I do think that the “real world” doesn’t divide neatly down discipline-specific lines.

… I wonder what you see as the advantages to discipline-specific teaching… In my experience, whenever I tried bringing math into history class, I got the oddest reaction, as if students were saying “I don’t use that part of my brain in history class — what are you doing? No fair!”

It seems to me that — sticking with middle school here for a moment — if we are saying all students need to know math and science and English and history and a world language and arts and PE to graduate middle school, shouldn’t we require that all adults in the building (who have all presumably graduated middle school) be able to do the things that we require of all 8th graders?

This seems like an important question I need to think about — and I’m wondering why you see value in having the “social studies” teacher label, rather than the English teacher label. And when you teach about the environment, for example, aren’t you becoming a “science” teacher?

I get that your graduate work prepares you for teaching humanities more than it does for math/science, but if pressed, I’m betting you could learn about and teach any math or science lesson in middle school (in high school, I tend to agree with you — there’s more value in discipline specific knowledge).

I think that there is a difference between being able to do things and loving them. The value for me doesn’t come in the label of being a social studies teacher, but in loving and feeling confident in what I teach. Feeling confident doesn’t mean imagining myself the expert by any means, but it does mean having a framework of knowledge for a given topic above the level at which I teach.

I love teaching, period. But having had the experience of teaching third grade (math, language arts, social studies), fifth grade US History, sixth grade history and language arts, seventh grade World History, and eighth and eleventh grade US history, I believe that I am a more engaged, happy, challenging teacher when I love both the content and teaching. I could teach a lesson with heavy math or science content, but I’m less interested in that way of thinking about the world.

This all comes with the very strong caveat that I don’t believe that teachers should close their doors and should instead actively seek out opportunities to collaborate with their colleagues. Better to see teachers teaching what they love and working together.

I would push you to articulate why you think discipline-specific knowledge is more valuable at the upper school level. That seems to short-change middle school students. I would suggest that even at the lower school level students benefit from teachers who have the time and interest to be, not just competent, but scholars of what they teach. If anything, upper school strikes me as the very place for inquiry-based and interdisciplinary learning.


One thought on “Disciplines

  1. While no classroom should close it’s doors to ideas and skills that don’t align to that particular discipline, not every discipline is taught the same way. I am an Language Arts teacher, but taught math in summer school for two years. I can do middle school math, but teaching it? In order to teach something effectively, you need to have a deep understanding of it, and understanding that partially comes from the passion you feel towards that subject like you said. I could do the problem for my students, but if they didn’t understand the way I did it, I wasn’t really able to articulate any other method…or sometimes articulate why I used the method I did (thinking specifically of slope-intercept here). Do I incorporate math into my LA class? Yes. Am I the best person to teach mathematical concepts? No.

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