Teaching with Contemporary Art

Interdisciplinary Is Not a One-Way Street

Blood cells. Image: mrbarlow.files.wordpress.com

Recently, a colleague and I were having a lovely conversation about what makes a good interdisciplinary lesson. We each had very different opinions and I was eager to make my co-worker understand that interdisciplinary teaching is not a one-way street. She seemed convinced that if a visual arts teacher somehow incorporated another subject or discipline into their work, this would constitute interdisciplinary teaching. I maintained that the “inter” in interdisciplinary means that two or more teachers from different disciplines plan and shape their lessons together, and that each teacher incorporates themes and learning objectives from both courses.

For example, if a science teacher says to a visual arts teacher, Hey Larry, I’m teaching about the parts of a blood cell next week. Would you mind if the kids made diagrams of blood cells in your art class? This does not translate into interdisciplinary teaching. As a matter of fact, it’s insulting to Larry because it insinuates that his art curriculum can be put on hold to make diagrams for a science class.

On the other hand, if the same science teacher says, Hey Larry, can we compare what we’re teaching over the next few weeks? I would love to collaborate with you and talk about ways our students can better understand the parts of a cell through art. At the same time, maybe I can help with teaching students about that metamorphosis lesson you described and even about abstraction through looking at blood cells. Well… now we’re talking!

Good interdisciplinary teaching doesn’t get done on the fly and doesn’t come packaged as “Here’s what you can do for me.” When I try to come up with artists that lend themselves to interdisciplinary teaching I visualize:

  • Learning about biology through examining the work of Mark Dion
  • Learning to reconsider American history through the photos of Carrie Mae Weems
  • Learning to love mathematics through deconstructing the work of Sol LeWitt
  • Learning about the dissolution of apartheid through the drawings and films of William Kentridge
  • Learning about race and colonialism by discussing works by Yinka Shonibare MBE

I also think about:

  • Learning about symmetry and asymmetry in math
  • Learning about color and light in science
  • Learning about artists who protest with and through art in social studies
  • Learning about how words are designed in order to convey specific meaning in a literature class

Maybe you have an experience you’d like to share? Feel free to post your thoughts on what good interdisciplinary teaching looks and sounds like!