Inter-disciplinary curriculum: why is it so difficult to develop? (part one)

Modern curricula advocate inter-disciplinary learning (IDL) as an alternative form of provision to more traditional subject-based delineation of the curriculum, and Scotland is no exception. This post is the first of two on the subject of IDL, or more specifically on curricular approaches – inter-disciplinary curricula – which might promote and foster IDL. This first piece will examine the current state of play in Scotland, highlighting the advantages claimed for IDL and identifying some of the practical approaches enacted in schools. The second post, which will follow in a few days, will explore what needs to be addressed if IDL is to become a practical reality in Scottish schools.

In Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), IDL is one of four specified contexts for learning. According to Education Scotland, in its 2012 CfE Briefing, ‘interdisciplinary learning, sometimes known as interdisciplinary studies, is a planned approach to learning which uses links across different subjects or disciplines to enhance learning’1. The Briefing goes on to offer two approaches to IDL:

  • ‘learning which is planned to develop awareness and understanding of the connections and differences across subjects or curriculum areas.’
  • ‘learning in different subjects or curriculum areas which is used to explore a theme or an issue, meet a challenge, solve a problem or complete a final project.’2

These definitions have been subject to critique for under-conceptualising what is in fact a hugely complex field of practice.

IDL is said to confer a range of benefits. Its many advocates claim that it allows students to make connections across different domains of knowledge more readily than is the case with more fragmented subject-based approaches to provision, examining complex social issues from multiple disciplinary perspectives. It is said to be more relevant to everyday life of young people, an essential part of education according to James Beane (19973), who stated that curriculum should be general, and helpful for young adolescents exploring self and social meanings. IDL is thus claimed to facilitate connections between everyday and disciplinary knowledge. For example, Dowden (2007) stated that its main purpose is to ‘resituate subject matter into relevant and meaningful contexts’4.

Moreover, IDL is firmly back on the political agenda in Scotland, highlighted by the January 2019 Royal Society of Edinburgh conference Interdisciplinary Learning for Excellence. Moreover, many schools are currently re-engaging systematically with the core purposes of CfE, as part of a national imperative to develop curricular rationales. At such a stage of development, it is important that alternative approaches to provision are considered, and better understanding of IDL is an essential component of this, particularly across the key primary-secondary transition phase from years P6-S2.

Yet despite strong advocacy of IDL in national policy, and in spite of widespread support for its principles, there has been little systematic adoption of such approaches in Scotland. Early experimentation with CfE saw some innovation, much of it fairly dubious, and often driven by a fallacious assumption that the new curriculum was replacing a focus on knowledge with an emphasis on skills acquisition, leading in many cases to IDL that ignored a key component – disciplinary knowledge. Some schools introduced the CfE afternoon (or morning), when stray learning outcomes in the new curriculum could be ‘ticked off’ in one fell swoop5. Other schools experimented with variants of the celebrated (possibly apocryphal) sausage themed week6, a ‘rich task’ activity where all subjects would involve study of content related to a particular theme. Many schools introduced hybrid subjects (e.g. social studies, science) combining traditional discipline based subjects such as history and geography, or biology and physics, in an attempt to defragment secondary curriculum in the Broad General Education (BGE – years S1-3) that may involve contact with 15 -20 teachers in a week.

These attempts to introduce IDL, and the national guidance that prompted them, have tended to be characterised by a lack of conceptual clarity about inter-disciplinary approaches, leading in many cases to activities that were not really inter-disciplinary, at best being cross-curricular. Public discourse around IDL uses many different terms interchangeably – for example, cross-curricular, integrated, thematic – which are conceptually distinctive but regularly conflated. Throughout this process, traditionally configured subjects have continued to dominate curricular thinking in most secondary schools. For example, rich tasks were seen as making connections between subjects, often spurious, while hybrid subjects continued to be seen as combining subjects, rather than as integration of knowledge. For instance, social studies has continued to be widely termed social subjects in Scotland, and integration is rare; more common are approaches where the constituent subjects are kept as separate modules, but taught by a single teacher7. It is not surprising that such innovation has tended to be greeted with scepticism by teachers.

So why have these approaches not worked well – and more important, what might be required to make them work? I suggest that action to promote meaningful inter-disciplinary curricula could be usefully developed by addressing the conditions which shape how schools approach the issue of IDL. These fall into two broad areas: conceptual understanding, and cultural/structural issues, including resourcing. The next post in this series will address these points.


    2. Ibid
    3. Also see this paper by Wall and Leckie –
    4. Cited in Wall & Leckie (2017) –
    6. In this example, all subjects related content to sausages. This probably has some relevance in Science (e.g. fat content), but is far more dubious in other subjects (history of sausages, sausages of the world, etc.).
    7. For an example of a Scottish school that has sought to genuinely integrate the social studies, see: