brain cells

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), my recent work has focused on literacy across the content areas. As part of this work I’ve been asked to distinguish between content literacy, interdisciplinary literacy and transdisciplinary, so I thought I’d share the definitions I’ve been developing.

Background: The CCSS emphasize the integrated nature of reading, writing, research, speaking, listening, language, and to a more limited degree, mathematics within and across content areas. The CCSS shift the focus from “learning to read and write” to “reading and writing to learn,” especially from third grade forward. In addition, students also write “to persuade, to explain, and to convey real or imagined experience” across content areas. The increased focus on informational text also aligns with a transdisciplinary approach.

In addition to specific grade-level standards, the CCSS argue that college and career ready students also master competencies that transfer across content areas. Specifically, the CCSS Capacities of a Literate Individual posit that students demonstrate independence; build strong content knowledge; respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose and discipline; comprehend as well as critique; value evidence; use technology and digital media strategically and capably; and come to understand other perspectives and cultures. Similarly, the CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practices support transferable practices: students should make sense of problems and persevere in solving them, reason abstractly and quantitatively, construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others, model with mathematics, use appropriate tools strategically, attend to precision, look for and make use of structure, and look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

Historically, content-area literacy has been defined as reading, writing, speaking, listening, and communicating for the purpose of constructing and applying knowledge in the areas of social studies, science, mathematics, and technical subjects. Implied in this definition is the recognition that texts include diagrams, charts, and other non-print, multimedia, and digital texts. With an interdisciplinary approach, the curriculum and instruction are centered on common learning across disciplines.  In this way, the teachers of different disciplines develop a common theme among their content areas and teach those concepts within their respective classes. While interdisciplinary units provide valuable real-life connections, they often lack authenticity, and some topics may feel forced into the curriculum.

A transdisciplinary approach moves curriculum and instruction beyond content-area literacy and interdisciplinary connections.  In full implementation, a transdisciplinary approach involves the organization of curriculum and instruction around authentic student questions where concepts and skills are developed through real-world context.  Inquiry is at the heart of the transdisciplinary approach as students seek answers to the questions raised by the curriculum and themselves.  Because the CCSS are mastery standards, within a transdisciplinary framework students must meet all content areas standards through the course of each year. Direct instruction still plays an integral role; students should not be expected to acquire skills solely on their own. (Transdisciplinary instruction should not be a reincarnation of the disastrous whole language movement.) Given the current structures of schools, a transdisciplinary approach will likely look different at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

A transdisciplinary approach aligns with local, state and national initiatives. For example,Universal Design for Learning principles pervade a transdisciplinary approach in that typically students access multiple means of representation, action, expression and engagement. Traditional twentieth-century skills such as the 4 C’s–collaboration, communication, creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving—are seamlessly embedded in a transdisciplinary approach. Student engagement increases for all students, including traditionally underperforming populations, because learning is relevant, challenging, hands-on, and connected to authentic experiences. Transdisciplinary instruction can also be a more efficient use of classroom time because multiple content areas are taught and reinforced throughout curricula.  Repeated interaction with content and skills move students from exposure to mastery.  Students shift from rote learning to learning for a clear purpose, essentially learning how to effectively apply what they already know and how to find out what they do not.