interdisciplinary learning

Frame and Canvas for Student Designed Assessment

Self-directed change as performance of understanding

In every unit of inquiry there is potential for student-generated assessment. As learning is a response to deliberately designed experiences, learning is a change in the learner’s skills, knowledge, understanding as well as post-unit decisions or actions. Action as a result of learning can be owned and led by students. Teachers provide the frame for learning, but what’s on the canvas belongs to the student.

Contextual framework of a unit on Change and Relationships

The problem that prompted the interdisciplinary unit “Be the Change” was a set of behavioral habits of many members of a class. Many members of this (middle school) class for which the unit was designed had poor impulse control exhibited by behaviors like talking over each other because they did not practice wait time or did not subscribe to the classroom agreements for supporting own and others’ learning. As a result of these unproductive habits, learning was often interrupted in the class, and over the years the students had developed many conceptual gaps, which emerged in underachievement in a wide range of subjects.

Conceptual frame of the unit

The team of teachers approached the unit design with their own questions from the context in which they wanted to impact the students’ thinking, and these questions reflected how the students would learn in the unit. The teachers asked:

  • How might students learn through the concepts so that their own choices change their behavior?
  • How might students learn about how the brain and cognition command outwardly expressed behavior?
  • How might students apply their learning in authentic ways relevant to themselves?
  • What sort of summative task would sustain students-led action?

These questions became the teachers’ context for the overarching goals for student learning in the unit. The design considerations inherent in the teachers’ questions gave them the goal of helping students to learn that “Change in how a person feels, thinks and acts can change how they perceive, understand and form relationships.” This became the statement of understanding in the unit. Through the unit, students might attain the concept of change as it pertained to thinking and resultant behavior. Through the conceptual learning of concepts patterns and relationships, students might learn of the relationships between how their thinking affected how they perceived others and themselves. Through the content illustrating the concepts, students might learn specific ways by which cognition controlled behavior. Through the open-ended task of the unit, students might find ways to sustain a change in their behavior as a result of learning.

The teachers created a few guiding questions for the unit designed to guide the conceptual inquiry.

  • Factual question: How does the brain work that results in how people feel, think and act?
  • Conceptual questions: How do people learn? How do people change because of what they learn?
  • Debatable question: To what extent can we change ourselves and change our relationships?

Construct of the unit

Prior to beginning the unit, the teachers had facilitated essential agreements between teachers and the class. They had dialogued about the expectations of the school and asked the students to discuss with them the behaviors, which would allow the students to express the expectations in how they behaved. These agreements became the basis for classroom management protocols used in each class the students attended. The agreements were made the year prior to the unit itself; these agreements had been revisited in the year when the unit was conceived just before it was taught. The need for the inquiry stemmed from the persisting habits which hindered the students’ learning.

The teachers used the authentic context of the conflicts that resulted between students and other students, conflicts between students and teachers, as the basis for the unit of inquiry. This global context of Identities and relationships was real to the individuals who spent time learning together every day, and created a significant cognitive landscape for learning in the unit.

The content the teachers prepared consisted of knowledge about how people learn. How people learn was explored in depth through texts on how the brain learns and how habits form.

A menu of texts were prepared by the teachers, ranging from a popular science article on brain function and habits, a set of Youtube videos explaining aspects of how the brain learned, parts of the brain, how habits are formed, TED videos to provoke thinking and questioning by the students. Interacting with the materials, students began to form connections between the brain and how the brain learned, and how personal ways to learn become habits, for instance how patterns of thinking affect how people perceive tasks or challenges, which was a conclusion students arrived at as they exhausted their factual study. As students began to grow in their understanding of the connections between the brain and learning, students began to ask their own questions. A research frenzy ensued, driven by students’ curiosity about their own individual learning. Their questions stemmed from personal concerns, like “Will less sleep make me less smart?” and “Do video games really harm children?” and “Is personality permanent?”

The students’ own inquiries based on personally relevant learning questions were guided by the teachers toward the big idea of learning as a source of change, the main concept framing the unit. As students attained conceptual understanding by making connections between content and concepts, they arrived at their own conclusions about what people have to do to change as a result of what and how they learned. Students had authentic concerns for themselves and their learning, and these became the basis for the students’ design of their own tasks for the summative assessment of the unit.


Schulsport by Maximilian Schonherr. CC via Wikimedia Commons

Student-designed assessment tasks

The teachers designed an open-ended assessment. Students were asked to formulate a plan of change. In the plan, students had to:

  • demonstrate knowledge and understanding of learning as a source of change (unit concept) using what they understood about patterns (unit concept) of learning they had learned through the source materials
  • identify a context for their intended change based on how their current behavior affected their relationships (unit concept) in a specific situation
  • explain how their plan addressed a change that would improve the relationship in their context, and justify how the changes in their behavior were supported by what they had learned in the unit
  • articulate a plan to monitor their own behavior in the context they described, and what success of changing would look like and how it would affect the relationships in their context.

This open-ended assessment task allowed students to:

  • Use knowledge and conceptual understanding
  • Find personal significance for their action plan
  • Structure a process by which their learning in the unit transferred to a real-life situation
  • Structure into their implementation process personal ways to monitor and self-assess

The power of the personally significant, student-generated questions drove the learning in the unit. The potential for each student to discover his or her own empowerment served to propel the students forward in the unit, especially since this unit assessment was not awarded any grade. In the larger scheme of things, the unit was designed around advisory time, which was not graded.

The students remained engaged, and continued to remain engaged in enacting their personal change as a performance of understanding.

Sustainable learning resulting from a performance of understanding

The potential for transformational learning is evident in this unit. A student in this class devised a simple way for him to keep track of his behavioral goal, which was “to decrease the number of times I spoke without taking my turn and increase the number of times I raised my hand to volunteer.” His approach was to use an index card to tally the number of times he spoke out of turn without waiting, and to tally the number of times he raised his hand to volunteer and wait to be called. Every week, he monitored his tallies on the index card, and rewarded himself if he met the goal of decreasing impulsivity and increasing impulse control.

Units that intend for students to perform conceptual understanding require a complex set of design considerations, which allow students to deepen both how they learn and what they understand in the units of learning. The deliberate ways by which teachers can design the rehearsal of thinking skills into a unit of work lead to opportunities by which students are able to draw upon their understanding of concepts and skills to solve unfamiliar problems in assessments requiring the performance of understanding.

Photo credits

Cover Photo বাংলা: বাংলার By Md Raihan rana – Own work CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Schulsport By Maximilian Schönherr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Imagination and the interdisciplinary

Every day, we glimpse the future in the present.

In the IB Diploma, the world studies essay gives students opportunities to express their interdisciplinary understanding by conducting “an in-depth interdisciplinary investigation into an issue of contemporary global importance” (IBO, 2014, p. 10). The ways by which we approach interdisciplinary investigation in the MYP directly affect the ways by which students might approach interdisciplinary investigation in the Diploma. If Diploma students struggle with interdisciplinary investigations in the world studies essay, what are our hunches about what experiences we need to facilitate for these students in the MYP?

Like a full bucket requires each drop of water added in at a specific time and place, small actions can complete an intended result.

Gharajedaghi in his book Systems Thinking (2006) presents four ways that might sustain small actions toward an intended result: design, participation, iteration, and second order learning (in Garmston & Wellman, 2013). These ideas can apply to interdisciplinary experiences in the MYP, and here we look at the first two.

Design consists of choices made based on values and principles (Garmston & Wellman, 2013). In a classroom, this might be about how we arrange the physical environment, essential agreements for behavior, the flow of teaching and learning. If we have seats arranged in uniform rows, all facing one way, perhaps we convey the value of a sage in the front of the room, that learning is transmission, non-collaborative, an endeavor each learner must undertake alone and in passive ways. If we rearranged this classroom so that students can see each other’s faces while learning, what values might this communicate? If the classroom has flexible seating to suit learning engagements at a given time, what might the students learn from this element of design?

In traditional subject-driven models of schooling, rare are the opportunities to explore one discipline’s concepts in light of another’s. If part of our design in MYP is facilitating arrangements and opportunities for another subject’s concepts to blend in another subject’s learning, we convey the importance of interdisciplinary learning. By gathering two or more subjects under the same global context to explore authentic manifestations of concepts, we convey the interconnectedness in our world and the ways we might explore complexity through these connections.

Participation is a function of design; the ways we behave can arise from the ways our interactions and behavior are shaped by things and people (Garmston & Wellman, 2013). If we expect behaviors, such as fruitful collaboration for instance, yet we do not provide for the actors to learn the skills necessary to engage in the expected behaviors, what might result? In the MYP classroom, participation might include approximations of independent inquiry. This means students have to experience psychological safety to explore how independent investigations work for each of them. This means we have adopted a mindset that school is not about getting things right that have already been decided by the teacher or the exam, but that school is a series of opportunities to exercise craftsmanship and flexible thinking and many other dispositions of the Learner Profile. That ways to know and understand and do can be more than the teacher’s design based on his or her own experience, and that students can author approaches to learning as they learn, and share these with other learners.

Independent investigation requires the student to value ambiguity as an entry point to learning.

One might argue, But what do they know, these students? How might they approach independent investigation when they know not much?

Consider the poet who provokes thinking

Xu Lizhi is the poet who documented the lives of workers in China. His own life through his poetry captures the macro-concepts of fairness and development, globalization and sustainability. He illustrates the key concepts of change, perspective, adaptation, balance, aesthetics, among others.

His poetry resonates with the audience because they allow readers to imagine a life they might not otherwise know. But the poems also capture the lives of hopeful migrants to the Chinese manufacturing hubs, and allow humanity to emerge in the algorithm of a Chinese “American Dream” – hope, optimism, disappointment, anguish, pain, creativity and destruction. If I read about Xu Lizhi, if I read his poetry, it might provoke thinking about a global context, a key concept, and provide entry points to connections that link subjects.

Consider the algorithm of a blockbuster movie, and of love

The increasing use of algorithms as an entry point to knowing and understanding patterns has emerged. People now calculate what makes a movie successful, how people choose political parties, and even attempt to predict the calculus of love.

We also learn that algorithms have to be adaptive, to deal with human problems connected to change. Humanity is needed in problems that produce decisions – such as trust, meaning, and asking the right questions. In the end, the human is necessary to provide the decisions. The patterns are only what they are, information arranged in meaningful sequences of logic, used to predict. In the process, imagination is key to finding interpretations that might result in adaptive decisions. In other words, the numbers open portals to the calculus of what to do, but we have to imagine what it is that we might do.

W.E.B. DuBois “invented a way of being, a point of view, a style of work that quite naturally, dynamically and organically integrated science, art, history, and activism” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Hoffman Davis, 1997, p. 7). In Rampersod’s portrait of DuBois, he “declined to see a separation between Science and Art, believing that such a distinction violated the integrity of intelligence, which could set no wall between one fundamental form of knowledge and another, since all belonged to the world of nature, of Truth…” (Rampersod in Lawrence-Lightfoot and Hoffman Davis, 1997, p.7).

We ask our students to view the world like DuBois, to imagine and pursue explorations of a world wherein there are no preset maps, only endless avenues.

The future is in the present: independent inquiry and the imagination to voyage into the interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary learning is the explicit harnessing of the imagination, and the IDU is a formal invitation to form connections and explore these.

How will we teach our students to sail? How will we give them the courage and self-efficacy to journey independently?

The ways we make the future is by approximating it in the present.

And when the present resembles the future we intend, we are already transforming it.


International Baccalaureate Organization (2014). Fostering interdisciplinary teaching and learning in the MYP. Geneva: Author.

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2013.) The adaptive school; A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups (2nd ed.). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gharajedaghi, J. (2006). Systems thinking; Managing chaos and complexity (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S., & Hoffman Davis, J. (1997). The art and science of portraiture. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Rauhala, E. & Jieyang. The poet who dies for your phone. TIME magazine. Retrieved from on June 16, 2015.

Whipple, T. Slaves to the algorithm. The Economist Intelligent Life. Retrieved from on June 16, 2015.

Image used
“Boris Bernaskoni EM KA-01” By Bernaskoni Ltd. (Bernaskoni Ltd.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.