Moving from Separate Subject to Interdisciplinary (1) Teaching: The Complexity of Change in a Preservice Teacher K-1 Early Field Experience

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This phenomenological inquiry looked at 28 preservice teachers as they participated in a field-based curricula restructuring initiative that connected the disciplines of creative arts, science, and reading. The preservice teachers offered weekly interdisciplinary lessons to kindergarten and first grade students. A survey, teaching cases, and a group exit interview informed the study. Throughout most of the semester, the preservice teachers struggled with procedural and pedagogical content knowledge, concerns directly related to effective teaching. By the end of the semester, they felt comfortable teaching interdisciplinary lessons. Results suggest that preservice teacher curricular restructuring efforts are complex and that teacher educators need to consider the perspectives preservice teachers bring to the change process. Key Words: Curricular Restructuring, Interdisciplinary Lessons, Phenomenological Inquiry, and Teaching Cases ********** Driven by a search for a new “coherence and integrity in the teacher education curriculum” (Fang & Ashley, 2004, p. 39), scholars now recommend that preservice teachers acquire abilities to organize academic disciplines around broad, interdisciplinary, themed topics of study. An interdisciplinary themed approach has the potential to introduce preservice teachers to a unified constructivist view of learning as they develop understanding of relationships among subjects (Mendolsohn & Baker, 2005). Interdisciplinary teaching also has the potential to foster democratic school changes needed in a multicultural society when students from diverse cultures engage in collaborative inquiry and decision-making (Britzman, 1991; Goodlad, 1984, 2000; National Council of Teachers of English/National Council for the Social Studies/ Council for Elementary Science Teachers Association/ International Reading Association, 2004; Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, 2001) Little research has investigated preservice teacher interdisciplinary programs (Akins & Akerson, 2002; Fang & Ashley, 2004). In particular, few studies have examined the subjective realities of preservice teachers who have been encouraged to move from subject-centered to multidisciplinary pedagogy. Yet, Fullan (1982) cautions that ignoring the phenomenology of how human beings experience and make sense of change is “at the heart of the spectacular lack of success of most social reforms” (p. 4). Guided by a phenomenological research perspective, we investigated the experiences of 28 preservice teachers as they learned to offer theme-based creative arts, science, and reading interdisciplinary lessons to kindergarten and first grade students. We hoped to discover the preservice teachers’ subjective realities, including their concerns, achievements, and understandings about interdisciplinary teaching. What is Interdisciplinary Teaching? Intermittently popular since the early 1920s, interdisciplinary teaching has once again received favorable attention in the United States as an alternative, or as an extension, to a separate subject curriculum (Akins & Akerson, 2002; Goodlad, 2000; Perkins, 1991). Teachers who emphasize a multidisciplinary approach usually keep the content of each subject intact, but they unite disciplines by organizing the curriculum around complex concepts, questions, themes, problems, or projects to capitalize on connections (Akins & Akerson; Mansilla, Miller, & Gardner, 2000; Ross & Frey, 2002). For example, primary teachers might link social studies, visual arts, and reading to help students explore “the first Thanksgiving.” Middle school teachers might connect science, language arts, and the creative arts to stimulate students’ understanding about “famous scientists” or “Rain Forest preservation.” High school teachers might structure an abstract theme, such as “change” in which students connect the sciences of astronomy and the plant, animal, and physical world with technology, music, and creative and expository writing (Carr, 2003).