Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Rich transdisciplinary learning - how two teachers are future proofing our students

Rich transdisciplinary learning – how two teachers are future proofing our students

Authentic and relevant learning, new perspectives, current issues within the context of multiple disciplines are all features of transdisciplinary learning defines it concisely as:

Transdisciplinary learning is the exploration of a relevant issue or problem that integrates the perspectives of multiple disciplines in order to connect new knowledge and deeper understanding to real life experiences.


We all know that the skills our students will need in their future lives are problem solving, creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking and the ability to think like a polymath (see my previous blog “We should be developing our students as polymaths, tinkers and dabblers”). A polymath utilizes their skills and knowledge across a significant number of different subject areas to solve problems.

I am proud to present a real example of how teachers can effectively achieve transdisciplinary learning. What follows is their letter to parents informing them of their approach to teaching mathematics at year 7.

Dear Parents,

As teachers, we have been delighted to see the increasing levels of engagement our students are expressing in Maths this year. No doubt your daughter has been telling you what has been happening in class, so we now would like to provide you with some of the context behind our current maths programme.

Year 7 has had a strong focus on authentic learning using rich learning tasks this year. Research from around the world, and particularly from Stanford University, has shown that the best learning happens when students are engaged in these types of activities. As a vehicle for this learning, our Year 7 students have entered the Class Project section of the 2016 Cantamaths exhibition. The theme of Cantamaths this year is ‘Why Maths?’ This theme is highly relevant to our goal of authentic learning, so the girls were asked to undertake a design project that would showcase how prevalent maths is in their lives.

They were asked to build a new set of book shelves for the library that are dynamic, interesting to look at, reflected other subject areas and captured the imaginations of library users. They have designed and built seven book boxes, arranged as a tangram that can be moved around the floor to create pictures and shapes. To do this they have had to understand and apply a large number of interrelated maths concepts, as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Concepts and skills used when making the library book boxes

As shown in Figure 1, these skills almost always involved decimal fractions and were completed using mental and written strategies only - no calculators.

 Teaching peers a strategy

This is an Inquiry-based approach, which is a cornerstone of learning at our school and the Primary Years Programme. All of the rich tasks that the girls have been exposed to this year (e.g. their helicopters, the dinosaur theme park, Cantamaths) have allowed for multiple levels of the curriculum to be taught simultaneously, so that each student’s needs can be met at the appropriate level. Students are often pushed to understand harder maths concepts at an earlier stage.

Research shows us that the benefits of this strategy are manifold, and include:
  • Students are encouraged to think more deeply about the maths they are undertaking, rather than rush through more and more work. The emphasis is on quality over quantity.
  • It requires the students to think abstractly and practically, rather than simply reproducing methods.
  • The mathematics involved is more interpretive, there is more than one answer, leading to a deeper understanding of the problems faced. There is also more than one way to reach the answer. Students are given time to share their strategies with the class.
  • It has been found that a high number of students being taught in this way continue on to take advanced maths, because of their improved attitude and understanding.
 Working through the problem

In addition, the Cantamaths project dovetails nicely with our school-wide focus of improving the mindset of girls towards maths and maths-related subjects.

Interestingly, in our staff school-wide professional development this year, a year 8 teacher has been interviewing secondary school HODs at our local secondary schools and has been made aware that students are finding difficulty when they get to level 2 NCEA because they are unable to problem solve and relate maths to real-life problems. In some cases this has even prompted the schools to move towards a more inquiry-based learning approach.

The finished tangram bookshelf!

Next Steps
It is important to acknowledge that many secondary schools still use a different model of learning to the PYP programme, and that our students need to be equipped to work in this environment where rich learning tasks are less common. So that our students are practiced in the more traditional teaching methods, we will be interspersing them into the Maths programme once CantaMaths is complete. However, as rich and authentic learning tasks are demonstrably beneficial to the students we will continue to make this a part of the programme.

As Artificial Intelligence becomes more advanced and machines continue their steady rise up the skills ladder, the future workplace will require more creative, and less routine, thinkers. This project has added another layer of rich experience for the students to learn in.

If you have any queries regarding any of the above, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Yours sincerely…

Instead of viewing mathematics as a set of methods that students need to observe, learn, practice and remember, the two teachers regard mathematics as a way of working with many different dimensions. Opportunities for students to work collaboratively in groups are integral to rich tasks and allow opportunities for students to develop deep understanding through substantive conversations. The bookshelves look fantastic but more importantly the mathematical learning was deep, rich, meaningful and transdisciplinary.
The teachers are future proofing our students ensuring they have the necessary skills to work successfully in an, as yet, unknown workplace.


  1. These two are truly gifted teachers. I admire them so much. They reflect so deeply on the girls' needs and work so hard to create a hands-on approach with real world applications. They never, ever take the easy option or cut corners. I am really inspired by them and know both my children would LOVE to be in their classes.

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