Education is increasingly awakening to the need for interdisciplinary teaching. Integrating content from different areas is a way to expand knowledge, making it more meaningful and opening up to the student a critical view of reality. The goal is to prepare human beings to face the complex challenges of today’s world. In this interview to the Observatory for English Language Teaching, education and innovation consultant Giselle Santos, founder of Human:ia, a startup focused on accessibility and the combination of technological and human intelligence, talks about the importance of interdisciplinarity in teaching English, an indispensable language for global interaction.
Why is it important to promote an interdisciplinary approach to English language teaching?
For decades, the teaching of the English language has been treated in a fragmented way. Classes, lessons, and learning materials are traditionally divided into levels — beginner, intermediate, advanced — or closed to specific purposes or topics. This no longer fits in today’s world. It is necessary to innovate. Then, when we talk about innovation, we usually think about technological resources. We had the era of cassette tapes and laboratories with computers, today we have video classes and electronic whiteboards. But technology is a tool, not a magic formula for learning. The great innovation that is valid now does not come from the exchange of tools, but from the applicability of the language that motivates people to learn. And this applicability appears when we approach English in an interdisciplinary way, opening up to the student the opportunity to understand the world in a broader, less simplistic way. The English language then becomes a global and multidimensional communication tool.
How is this done?
Interdisciplinarity has a valuable space in project-based learning, in which the student mobilizes the four pillars of education: learning to be, to live together, to do and to know. The project must be born out of the interest of the students themselves. For example, if a class demonstrates curiosity regarding the use of language in different situations and scenarios, it is possible to develop a project that addresses the practice of English in the media (internet, TV, newspapers) and in social or professional interaction. In each of these situations, important issues can be worked on, such as the dissemination of fake news, diversity, construction and respect for identities. To participate in a project, whatever it is, it is natural that the class needs to do research, and to seek references in other areas of knowledge, which go beyond language, and end up raising new questions to be answered, expanding knowledge.
Can you give an example of these researches that expand knowledge?
Imagine that a group of students wants to know why garbage cans have different colors. Research to answer this question can lead to other, broader questions. For example, is garbage sorted in the same way everywhere in the world? Or why should we separate recyclable waste from organic waste? Starting from a very simple question, the students find themselves discussing a major topic in the area of natural sciences, sustainability and caring for the planet. In short, the key to teaching English through interdisciplinarity and promoting a critical view of the world is to escape from pre-made exercises. If we are talking about urban transport, instead of studying a ready-made vocabulary, we can discuss the increase in bus and subway fares, or the price of fuel, and deal with the vocabulary needed for that.
In project-based pedagogy, the teacher is the guide of the learning process. How does the teacher do this to include interdisciplinarity in English teaching?
First, the teacher must also see him or herself as a learner, open to discoveries. He or she needs, on the one hand, to have an awareness and attitude of global citizenship, and, on the other, to know the students, to know what they are consuming, what their needs are and the problems they face. With this, the teacher can complement the lesson plans and the content of teaching materials with interdisciplinary elements that go beyond the ready-made formula. For example, in the classic class on nationalities of English-speaking people, why not work with countries that might not appear on the list, like Jamaica? If we can talk about Hollywood from the United States, why not discover Bollywood from India? The same example holds true for the exact sciences—why not bring a pizza to the classroom or bake a cake following a recipe to talk about fractions and measurements in English? Note that these approaches make room for teachers from other areas of knowledge, such as geography, arts and mathematics to work together with the English teacher.
Projects, then, are not limited to issues surrounding the student, right?
Not only. It is possible to explore the extension of the English language as a cultural manifestation of other people. A good example are the projects developed through Design for Change, a network movement, through which teachers and students from different parts of the world share proposals for solving local, regional or global problems. One of these projects was created by students from India, who questioned the female participation in the school universe. Exchanging information with Indian students on this topic is a good opportunity for interdisciplinary learning, with English associated with a culture and reality far from the one in the classroom in Brazil.
Can we say that interdisciplinarity brings the world into the classroom?
Yes, because the world doesn’t stop when you start school. The students bring to the class a whole bag of knowledge acquired throughout life — they know how to read and write, surf the internet, play video games, among other skills. It is on this baggage that learning takes place and adds to it. Then, in the opposite direction, what was learned is applied to life outside of school and can raise other questions, which will again be taken to the classroom. Education is a process that constantly feeds back.
Seen in this way, teaching English seems to be associated with a philosophy of citizen life.
In a way, yes. We live in a world with multidimensional challenges, which must also be faced in a multidimensional way. An example of this are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations, targets for combating social and environmental problems on the planet, to be achieved by 2030. They are goals that address fundamental issues of humanity, such as the eradication of poverty and hunger, guaranteeing health and quality work, social equality and care for the environment. Note that these themes involve different areas of knowledge, from human and social sciences to exact and natural sciences. Working on these goals in English classes, in an interdisciplinary way, makes students develop greater awareness of their role as citizens and return constructive actions to the community. In this, English is not an end, but a means. Students need to be ready to take the foreign language into their life abroad and use it in any situation, for the benefit of society. This is part of the idea that education aims to build human beings.