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!


  1. Alex says:

    Fascinating! What about teaching the Arts through other disciplines, e.g. Sociology, Anthropology & Maths? Still, I believe interdisciplinarity goes one step beyond the post’s suggestions, and rather than an exchange I prefer to envisage it under the metaphor of blending. Aren’t Science, Technology & Arts close? Why do we keep on “disciplining” in education? Isn’t reality richer than a “me-yours” approach? I dream of(among many others)taking Stelarc and his “body amplifications” as a reflection upon/ product from Social & Natural Science, Technology, Arts & Maths for it’s all in there.

    But the queen of dreams for me would be using an experiential/performative Arts approach to social science research with a little bit less contempt around.

  2. Flossie Chua says:

    I definitely agree that interdisciplinary teaching is not a one-way street (love that metaphor!). Most definitions of interdisciplinary learning agree on one thing: quality interdisciplinarity involves integration or synthesis of disciplinary concepts and modes of thinking. So in that sense, incorporating art into a Science class would mean that the teachers see that there is a need to bring together certain concepts or modes of thinking from art and science so that students arrive at an understanding that is not possible in a mono-disciplinary approach. I guess the million-dollar question here is: do the students need to draw the parts of a blood cell in the art class in order to learn the topic better? My understanding of interdisciplinary teaching is that bringing together different disciplines will support students in developing a deeper, more nuanced, and more complex understanding of the topic. If there is nothing substantive gained from involving another discipline or teacher, why do it? After all good disciplinary teaching is far, far better than superficial interdisciplinarity!

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  4. Jessica Hamlin says:

    This anecdote also made me think about a previous post you wrote about making less art in the art room – http://magazine.art21.org/2009/05/13/make-less-art. In it, you make a strong case for art as core subject that has a depth of thinking that doesn’t necessarily get recognized or realized in many schools. So often, the arts are considered window-dressing or illustration in the service of other subjects and disciplines – the pretty bulletin boards that brighten the school or the textbook pictures that help visualize historical narratives. Instead, what is being proposed is that the arts provide a forum for deeper investigation of ideas (rather than skills) and in turn new forms of production that express these ideas (based on skills learned through the investigative process). When the arts are a place for “immersion into the themes, questions and big ideas that can drive significant units of study on all levels” there is more than picture-making going on and the potential to support strong interdisciplinary connections is clear. The interdisciplinary work of many artists today offers a great opportunity for us as educators to not only shift our thinking about how we can spur interdisciplinary thinking with our students, but also how we can educate our colleagues and work with them in new ways.

  5. James Rees says:

    Over the past couple of years I’ve worked collaboratively with other teachers in various subjects. From these experiences I’ve learned that many of my fellow teachers think of the visual arts as a way to visually illustrate the concepts that they are doing with their students. An english teacher, for example, believes that the ideal interdisciplinary approach between our subjects is for their students to write a story and then have my students illustrate these stories stories. The ideal interdisciplinary experience for me has been when I’ve set some boundaries for the collaboration with colleagues in different subjects and find a way for students to meet and dynamically discuss the possibilities of combining the two subject areas. With gentle guidance by their teachers, students can brainstorm and come up with more interesting integration of subjects.

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  7. Joe Fusaro says:

    Thanks to everyone who weighed in on this. Obviously a popular topic. Teaching social science through performing arts, Alex, sounds alright to me! And Jess, thanks for providing that link.

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