Blending Practices, Skills, and Content in Teaching and Learning

In our educational spaces, we often break our areas of expertise down into specific subject matters. We educate, train, and certify classroom teachers in terms of grade bands and content or disciplines. Students in schools spend time blocked off in different subjects where they receive instruction in a content area and earn grades that signify their level of expertise and competence in that area.

We separate our time in the educational pathway into grade levels and content areas to make it a bit easier to certify and support educators as they work with youth. But, these artificially designed pieces end up creating silos where educators and students set up camp and develop expectations about what, why, and how we learn. This raises the question about whether we need to erase the boundaries between disciplines, or do we need to—in a sense—harden them so that students learn where they start and end and are therefore better prepared for their futures?

A transdisciplinary lens challenges educators and researchers to consider the spaces in which learning occurs and overcome established paradigms and competition within and between disciplines. 1 This post will examine the ways that education tries to carve out a space for collaboration and ambiguity between the disciplines and suggests there is a need to deconstruct assumptions made about educational structures and systems to de/re-territorialize teaching, learning, and assessment. 2


Some theories of education shift the focus from understanding of formal concepts to meaning-making to encourage students and educators to cross disciplinary connections. 3 As instruction moves away from traditional understandings of content areas and disciplines to craft new blended content areas (e.g. Humanities, STEM, STEAM), there is an opportunity to find content area literacies in context in other disciplines. 4 A desire to study across “individual attributes, at the nexus of institutional and material practices and textual cultures, instrumentality, and the production of agency and identity.” 5 Educators seek not for disciplinary purity and isolation, but to explore knowledge, discourse, and literacy practices around mutual areas of inquiry. 6 Instruction may also focus on teaching strategies that integrate multiple domains of knowledge into a single unit of study, such as authentic learning 7 or project-based learning. 8

In the graphic above, you can see two disciplines with their own sets of practices, skills, content, and dispositions. In an interdisciplinary perspective, educators and the content work together synergistically to understand an object of inquiry.

One way to consider this is to think about a science teacher and an art teacher working together on a unit with students. The science teacher would consider the content and curriculum they are teaching. The art teacher would think about their content and curriculum. The process or product of the interdisciplinary unit might have students use art to illustrate or creatively express content of the other discipline. This is not a bad thing, but we’re reminded of Aristotle who stated, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”


Metadisciplinarity is the understanding of the structure of a discipline, “of what the discipline is, what it tries to accomplish, and how it tries to accomplish its aims.” 9 Metadisciplinarity goes beyond one discipline into the structural understanding of various disciplines in order to make comparisons and connections between disciplines. 11 The elements of metadisciplinarity include practices such as defining notions, generalizing ideas, drawing parallels, developing classifications, choosing proper classification grounds and criteria; to find out causal relationships, building logical reasoning and making (inductive, deductive, analogical) conclusions. 12

In the graphic above, metadisciplinarity finds the connections, or correspondence (marked with “μ”) between subsets of practices, skills, content, and dispositions  from one discipline to the other.

One way to think about this is using our example of a science and an art teacher working on a collaborative unit. Teachers and students would examine and compare the similarities and differences between the two content areas. They may consider the affordances of each of of the disciplines.


As detailed above, educational research and practice can be framed as a spectrum starting from content area silos and a disciplinary focus to more of an integrated interdisciplinary connection that includes multidisciplinary associations. The concept of transdisciplinarity is slippery, in flux, and has a plurality of definitions. 13 One of the features of transdisciplinarity is blurring and transcending disciplines. These spaces have been shown to provide fertile grounds for exploring patterns of change, transformations, and invariants in and across content areas. 14 Transdisciplinarity breaks down the silos and pro-
vides an enriched experience that is more true to life in that disciplines are experienced
simultaneously rather than in isolation. 15

In the graphic above, transdisciplinarity involves the blending of disciplines by blending of practices, skills, content, and dispositions from one discipline to the other.

One way to think about this is with our example of a science and art teacher working together on a unit. They consider the concepts, expressions, and forms shown in art, science, and in-between. They study gardens as heterogenous assemblages where art, science, and people meet. They consider how the plants need water and cultivating in order for the garden to prosper. In their work, they include elements of art, science, and beyond. But, their work process and product is an iterative assemblage as they consider where the living sciences, and abstract nature of art meet.

This post was written by Nenad Radakovic and Ian O’Byrne. This was originally posted here. Portions of this content from our publication titled Toward Transdisciplinarity: Constructing Meaning Where Disciplines Intersect, Combine, and Shift.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash


Wicked Problems

Many important societal problems are neither simple nor easily solved; they are wicked problems. 1 A wicked problem is a social or cultural challenge that involves many social systems and groups, has unpredictable outcomes, and defies typical problem-solving techniques. 2

Wicked problem is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It’s important to note that the word (wicked) is used to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. 3

Systems Theory

Because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. We make sense of this through systems theory, or the the interdisciplinary study of systems. These systems are cohesive groups of interrelated, interdependent components that can be natural or human-made.

Every system has causal boundaries and is influenced by its context, defined by its structure, function and role, and expressed through its relations with other systems. A system is more than the sum of its parts as it can express synergy, or the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. Systems can also show emergent behavior, or an unanticipated side effect of bringing together a new combination of capabilities. Emergent behaviors can be either beneficial, benign, or potentially harmful, but in all cases they are very difficult to foresee until they manifest themselves.

Addressing Wicked Problems

To address a real-world, wicked problems a transdisciplinary lens is needed to support educators and students as they engage with this content in ways that extend beyond traditional academic boundaries 4 Transdisciplinarity is a research or educational approach that seeks to challenge disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic perspective that enables inputs across scientific and non-scientific communities. 5 Looking at a problem and context through a transdisciplinary lens allows one to construct meaning in more authentic contexts where disciplines intersect, combine, and work together. 6

Illustrator: Uğur Orak

What could be described as a wicked problem is really a situation in which we’re recognizing the power and irregularity of evolving systems. In education, we want to provide learning opportunities for students that are valid representations of the challenges they’ll encounter in the real world. This calls for a greater amount of flexibility on the part of the teacher. Given the lack of structure, and problems with validity, reliability, and access of open digital information, educators need to be more flexible and tolerant as they engage in the learning process. 7 Teachers need to have an appreciation for the complexities, pitfalls, challenges, and opportunities that exist when using open, digital information in the classroom. 8 Educators must constantly re-envision what it means to be educated, and what it means to be literate as technology advances. Through the careful use of texts, tools, and pedagogy there is an opportunity to effectively achieve Friere’s goal that teachers should be learners, and learners should be teachers. 9

Students also bear a great deal of responsibility when engaging with wicked problems in the classroom. Students must display the discipline, responsibility, persistence, and flexibility required to work as an active participant in these interactions. In this process, students must take an active role in learning, and reconsider the concept of “school.” 10 In a classroom in which teachers empower students to wrestle with wicked problems, students may have to take a leadership role in the crafting and revision of new learning process or product. 11 12


We we prepare youth to enter their futures, it is important to be honest with learners and let them know that the systems, policies, and practices that govern our spaces may not always make sense. As we address wicked problems it is important to consider all of the contexts and contingencies that impact the these decisions. As learners in a globally connected community, we need to continue to evolve with these incomplete, contradictory, and changing challenges from a systems perspective.

When we think about pedagogy or curriculum in terms of content areas or disciplines, these arbitrary designations limit the creativity and perspective that youth need as they prepare for their futures. This siloed view of teaching, learning, and assessment stunts youth from fully engaging with meaningful experiences.

Adding complexity to this wicked problem of considering these opportunities in learning environments is that as we debate whether to include them in classes, the wicked problems themselves evolve, intensify, and metastasize. Educators need to evolve and reset paradigms around teaching, learning, and power as the challenges persist. 

Content originally posted at

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Webinar: Transdisciplinarity as a Gateway to Critical Literacy

Literacy in the Disciplines, 6-12 (LiD) is pleased to announce our next after-school Webinar Series session.

Traversing, Transforming, Transcending, and Transgressing wicked problems in the classroom.

Many critical societal problems are neither simple nor easily solved; they are wicked problems (Zellner & Campbell, 2015). A wicked problem is a social or cultural challenge that involves many social systems and groups, has unpredictable outcomes, and defies typical problem-solving techniques (Rittel & Webber, 1973). To address real-world, wicked problems, a transdisciplinary lens is needed to support educators and students as they engage with content in ways that extend beyond traditional academic boundaries (Alford & Head, 2017). Students experience deeper learning and start thinking outside the box when their teachers collaborate to present different aspects of the same subject across various disciplines. (Mauser et al., 2013). A transdisciplinary lens allows one to construct meaning in more authentic contexts where
disciplines intersect, combine, and work together (Rice, 2013). This session will define transdisciplinarity and provide teachers with techniques to expand critical literacy opportunities in their classrooms.

When: This webinar was held on Tuesday, December 28th, 2022, 6:00 – 7:00 pm ET.

The slide deck for the presentation is embedded below.

The video recording of this session is available below.

Cost: Free. LiD6-12 is funded by the South Carolina Middle Grades Initiative.

This session featured Dr. W. Ian O’Byrne.

Cost: Free. LiD6-12 is funded by the South Carolina Middle Grades Initiative.

This session will feature Dr. W. Ian O’Byrne

Dr. W. Ian O’Byrne (@wiobyrne) is an associate professor of literacy education at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. His research focuses on individuals’ dispositions and literacy practices as they read, write, and communicate in online and/or hybrid spaces. Ian is the author of many journal articles and book chapters focusing on initiatives ranging
from online and hybrid coursework, integrating technology in the classroom, computational thinking, and supporting marginalized students in literacy practices. His work can be found on his website or in his weekly newsletter.

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