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_Rational for Interdisciplinary Assignments
© Dr Kathie Nunley

Here again we turn to basic educational psychology. There has been a lot of research and publicity lately on the brains of babies and young children. It adds to what we already know about neural pathways.

When babies are born they have about 200 billion neurons which make up their brain. As adults we have about 100 billion neurons in our brain. Why, you may ask, does the number get cut in half as we grow up? It might make more sense to us if we added neurons as we grow, not subtract them. What happens to all those other neurons?

The answer lies in the plasticity of the brain. Think of a young brain as a lump of clay ready to be sculptured. As we grow and learn, we use, and thereby strengthen, particular neurons and neural pathways. Each time we learn something or use a particular area of the brain, we strengthen that area and make it easier for us to use it again. As we grow older, areas or neurons that aren't being used are cleared out, just like someone shaving away excess clay to make a sculpture.

So as an adult, those areas that were developed in your childhood are useable and their ease of use depends on how often they were stimulated as we grew up. That's the real reason behind learning a lot of material and taking a lot of different subjects in school -- not so we could someday recall the particular information we were learning, but to strengthen that particular area of our brain.

The second part of this story lies in the way information is stored in our long term memory. When we set aside something to learn, we have to tag it for storage, reference that piece of information, and then cross reference it. It's the cross referencing of the idea that strengthens it into something we've "learned" rather than just memorized.

Here's an example: Take the word "dog". Does it bring something to mind? Probably a picture of a dog. So under "dog" in your brain you have filed various pictures of dogs as can be proven by simply going through a visual list of dogs in your brain. Where else have you stored "dog"? Under the category of "Animals" probably. How about "3-letter words"? How about another category "things with 4 legs"? How about "words starting with d"? How about "domestic animals". How about "mammals"? What about "pets I've owned"? The list could literally go on forever.

We know a lot about dogs. We remember dogs quite easily because we've "cross - referenced" dogs in our memories in infinite connections. So, do we know dogs? Yes, very well.

What about "Hannibal". What does that bring to mind? To me, he goes under the category of "guys who crossed the Alps on elephants". I can also find him under movie characters and cities in Missouri. But that's about it for categories.

Do I know Hannibal? Yes, but not as much as I know dogs.

Another way we see cross-referencing in our brains is in the phenomenon known as "Tip-of-the-tongue" or TOT experiences. That's where you try to remember a word, but you can only find the cross-reference titles and not the word.

"What was that man's name?.....It started with a W.......Kind of a long word......it had 2 or 3 syllables and a double letter in the middle.....I think it ended with M.....but I can't think of the name."

Ever had that experience? Sure, we all have and it's quite frustrating. Hours later the name William may pop into your head. How can you know the beginning and ending letters and even the number of syllables but not be able to find the word? It's a retrieval failure event where you can find all the cross-referencing topics but not the word. The more cross references you have the easier it is to retrieve it.

So combining what we know about neural pathways and cross-referencing in memory we have a lot of support for interdisciplinary assignments. I like to include at least one on every unit. It can be something as simple as doing an assignment in a foreign language (which helps both the ESL student and the foreign language students) or a poem relating to a unit and is one which they have their English teacher grade.

Here are some examples:

Social Studies

Write a historical account of the discovery of DNA structure by Watson and Crick. Include what was reported in the newspaper at the time.

Foreign Language

Describe the difference between a Monocot and a Dicot. Your description must be in a language other than English.


Write a poem describing 5 conflicts in an amphibian's life and how they've adapted. Have your English teacher grade it for grammar and style.


Make a poster showing the life cycle of a frog from egg to adulthood.


Write a song describing the various stages of a lytic virus.


Using a 20 inch piece of adding machine tape, make a time line showing the evolution of the vertebrate classes. Your timeline must be to scale

About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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