It’s Time to Teach Undisciplined: The Power of Interdisciplinary Thinking

by Casey Baird, History Teacher, Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences.

I’m a teacher and a generalist thinker.

My interests aren’t bounded by any subject. So over the last couple of years, as a history teacher at Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, CA, I have been trying to teach in a more undisciplined way: connecting my topics to other fields of study, using diverse knowledge from across disciplines to fuel the explorations in my own.

This idea of undisciplined teaching was inspired by an article called “Undiscovered Public Knowledge,” written by Don Swanson, a library scientist who focused on connecting the published literature of different subjects. (Don Swanson, “Undiscovered Public Knowledge”) His thesis: we can create new knowledge by connecting existing knowledge across fields. Answers in one field might help us solve puzzling questions in another.

Here’s how Swanson put it:
“Imagine that the pieces of a puzzle are independently designed and created, and that, when retrieved and assembled, they then reveal a pattern – undesigned, unintended, and never before seen, yet a pattern that commands interest and invites interpretation. So it is, I claim, that independently created pieces of knowledge can harbor an unseen, unknown, and unintended pattern. And so it is that the world of recorded knowledge can yield genuinely new discoveries.”

So potential new knowledge is “public” because people have already discovered and published it. And it is “undiscovered” because we haven’t tapped its transferable potential.

The idea resonated and led to a question: “How could I help my students better connect and link existing knowledge in order to foster new ideas and solutions?” The shift came, appropriately enough, with a cutting edge.

“How could I help my students better connect and link existing knowledge in order to foster new ideas and solutions?”

I was brainstorming compelling hooks for a unit on early humans. Early humans — bands of hunter-gatherers — fascinate me (but not all of my students share my enthusiasm.) What was my deeper purpose for my students? Why do my students need to know this? How could I create a hook that would catch more of my students’ attention?

A traditional approach might foreground chronology: important time periods and their attendant characteristics of different human ancestors. The goal would be to know about early humans, in a version of the past as a prologue: learning about early ancestors because they came before what we really want to know about, which is civilizations. The payoff would be external to the topic itself.

But I had recently come across A History of the World in 100 Objects. Based on the British Museum’s collection, the book narrates human history through artifacts – our material goods.

The first two chapters focus on Early humans’ tools: a “chopping tool” and a “handaxe,” both variations on sharp rocks used to cut, scrape, and chop. These tools are not, in and of themselves, especially impressive. The people who used these sharp rocks left no written records, nothing we can read or interpret.

Yet I noticed that these tools’ benefits depended upon understanding human development. Biology, cognitive science, anthropology: these subjects lie outside history’s traditional purview. But in these different disciplines, I found my frame.

I reframed the unit through a scientific lens. Adaptation was the key. Rather than focusing on History (dates & times; sequence and order), we focused on humans’ brains and bodies, and their cognitive and biological growth. These early sharp rocks helped us eat more nutritious food. Better nutrition fed bigger brains that became specialized (asymmetrical). Our skills diversified: we evolved not only to make tools but to teach others to make them, too. In order to teach, we needed speech, so we learned to share knowledge through talking. Do this enough and you have a body of collective wisdom passed down through each generation. That’s culture.

Rather than focusing on History (dates & times; sequence and order), we focused on humans’ brains and bodies, and their cognitive and biological growth.

These tools sparked amazing body-mind advancements. The reframing allowed the class to ask whether these extremely old semi-sharp rocks, hewn through trial and error, were the catalysts for humans’ world-conquering powers and ambition. Emphasizing broader human development, rather than simply history, helped my students see themselves as the products of the people who crafted the tools we’re reading about.

By approaching history through biology, my students linked culture and societies with their own brains and bodies. Further, we reinforced and connected what we were studying in History with their knowledge from biology classes. We made clever, creative, provocative, and productive comparisons between older tools and newer ones. We assessed the relative power of different tools in different eras. In our most-ancient tools, we came to see our most-modern selves.

This is level-one undisciplining, the hunting and gathering of low-hanging fruit. I didn’t invent a radically new curriculum. By reframing our readings around other disciplines, we pivoted our collective attention to fruitful modern-day connections. Using A History of the World in 100 Objects as a critical-thinking inspiration, not simply a source of historical information, we kindled new ideas.

Without direct coordination between biology and history, 100 Objects and some sharp rocks opened a door between disciplines. This left me wondering, “What if the biology teacher and I had coordinated our efforts?” Think how much greater resonance and effect our classes would have had.

There is an opportunity for learning through mining, exploiting, and seeking connections between the good ideas already around us. If we connect the skills, abilities, and ideas that each department cultivates, we can transform the principles of undiscovered public knowledge into the practice of undisciplining.

Look for the secret doors that open passages between your discipline and the others. Your best teaching may be on the other side.

Casey Baird is a History teacher at Crossroads School for the Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, California. He is an avid runner and a frequent collaborator for the Elevate design team. This summer, he will be co-facilitating EXPLO Elevate’s Undisciplined! workshop. Details below.

If you’re interested in the ideas behind undisciplined teaching and how you can open more doors for your students, check out our course: Undisciplined!, running from August 8-11, at The Willows Community School, in Los Angeles, California.

Not able to attend but still want to talk? We’d love to hear from you! [Email to learn more about Undisciplined!]