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Introducing an Interdisciplinary Course (IDC) at Your School

Steve Fotheringham, OAPT Exhibit Hall Coordinator, Teacher Oakville Trafalgar High School

Have you ever looked at your schools’ course offerings and noticed that some need is not being met? Perhaps the course selection for your applied-level learner is uninspired or there are no elective courses that encourage students to apply their imagination or creativity. Perhaps, what you are looking for does not exist on the list of courses in Ontario.

I’ve had this thought many times and have since had the privilege of introducing two new courses to my school — “Engineering Design” and “Leadership”. Both made use of the incredibly flexible IDC course code.

The purpose of this article is to share with you a few of the lessons (in no particular order) that I have learned along the way which in turn may help you introduce a new course in your school.

An Interdisciplinary Course (IDC) only needs approval at the school level. You just need to convince your principal that it is a good idea. Your school can offer multiple IDC courses, but there are only three codes; IDC 3O, IDC 4U and IDC 4M. A student can take up to three IDC courses, but only if they have different codes. The two courses that I have introduced are Engineering Design: IDC 3O and Leadership: IDC 3O. Our school also offers Business Communication (IDC4U) and Sports Marketing (IDC4M).

In the IDC3O course (Engineering Design), we take course expectations from SPH3U/SPH4U/SPH3C (Physics courses) along with TDJ3C (Tech Design) to create a course that is primarily project-based and which involves designing and building rollercoasters, hovercraft, hot air balloons, etc. The course is co-taught by the Science and Tech department. The students learn the theoretical/mathematical principals from the science teacher before heading down to the tech department to apply their knowledge to building their project. Here is a video of the hovercraft competition.

In the IDC4M course (Leadership), students earn their credit by running several large-scale events for our school, i.e. Career Day. Students who enroll in this course tend to get a lot out of it, as they enjoy the practicality of the content, as well as the skills learned such as organization, public speaking, working with a budget, etc.

Determine the need within your school
If you are working in a large school, you often don’t realize some of the amazing projects that are going on in the classrooms of other teachers. Before you introduce or suggest a new course, take the time to inventory what already exists to ensure that you do not overlap with what is already being offered in your school. In particular, check whether there are some IDC courses already on offer.

Talk to everybody about your course idea
Once you have a clear idea of what the course goal should be, you should discuss it with all of your peers at PD sessions and conferences. The offerings by your peers may be invaluable and it is impossible to predict when you will receive some academic jewel that will elevate your course beyond your expectations. For my Leadership class, I was given a complete course curriculum from a teacher I met during a coffee break between PD sessions. For my Engineering Design class, I was given a design for a rideable hovercraft because my department head had mentioned it to a friend at a party. It turned out that this friend knew an instructor in Barrie who had made one in his class. We are lucky indeed to be in an industry where so many people freely share their teaching resources and experiences. It is critical that you benefit from on the kindness and generosity of our colleagues.

Find the appropriate paperwork before speaking to Admin
If you have a clear vision of what the course could look like and you have an enthusiastic administration, convincing them to offer the course becomes the easy part. They might not be familiar with the IDC course code, so be prepared to explain it. You can find the full description of it here. If you are thinking about offering an IDC course that is a big success in another school, provide evidence and references to bolster your pitch. Depending on what school board you are a part of, you may even have an IDC coordinator that can help in this process. The TDSB has one.

Promote the course aggressively
In order for a new course to garner sufficient interest among students, it will require considerable promotion. This will necessitate extensive legwork on your part so be prepared to dedicate a significant portion of your time towards this end. While hanging posters around the school, making a promotional website and video presentations and printing flyers are important, most of the recruitment is going to be from you speaking to classes directly and selling the course to individual students. In a semestered school the schedule is advantageous as you can enlist the students at the end of semester one and right at the beginning of semester two, thus providing an excellent window of opportunity.

Think of the course in terms of a multi-year project
Although you may have a clear vision of what your course should be, it will probably take a few semesters until your vision comes to fruition. The reality is that the clientele within your course will probably be much more diverse than it is in an Academic or Applied level course. Consequently, it is tricky to determine to what level that you should deliver the curriculum. Only experience will help you to avoid classes that are far too difficult or far too easy. In addition, only experience will allow you to assess what lessons cause that intellectual spark that you look for in your students.

Write a journal and correct mistakes on your handouts immediately after class
In keeping with the theme of the previous point, it is imperative that you write down your impressions of each class as soon as it is over. Time clouds your impressions and memories and as a consequence you may not remember or you may remember inaccurately what presentation was successful or what was a failure. This is especially true if you do not get around to the assessment for what may be a full calendar year later. It only takes a few minutes right after class to jot down a few notes or to correct or reword a handout.

Be prepared for failures… lots of them
The first time I ran the leadership course, I found the entire process to be an incredibly humbling experience. I had spoken to countless teachers during the year leading up to the course and I knew that the curriculum I was delivering was vastly inferior to what had been done in other schools. As teachers, we are often hesitant to speak about our classroom failures despite the fact that we all experience them. The good news is that I have found that students tend to remember one or two “great” classes and forget about the rest. Students usually fail to remember or fail to recognize most of your “substandard” lessons. It is my impression that you shouldn’t lose any sleep over them.

Be generous with your marks the first few times through the course
When you hand out an assignment and the quality of the student’s work is below expectations, you should ask yourself, “Whose fault is this?” Did I provide the correct framework for the students to be successful? Were my instructions communicated effectively? Unlike a traditional course — like science — where the assignments can be fairly predictable, i.e. labs, presentations, etc., the course objectives in this new course may not be so clear to them. As a result, classes may deliver poor quality work simply because your vision was not adequately communicated to them. A student who signs up for a new course is probably eager and enthusiastic about the material so don’t assume that their poor showing on an assignment is due to a lack of effort.

Take the feedback from the students to heart
For a new course, the final judges of its quality and value will be from the students so listen carefully to their feedback. Although you can’t always take their advice verbatim, you can often learn much by listening and trying to determine the root of their feelings. Additionally, be aware of the danger that you may get so caught up in the details that you lose perspective on how well you are delivering the goal of the course.

In terms of specifics, I would be happy to help anyone who is interested in starting up a Leadership course at their school as I have accumulated resources from countless teachers over the years. In terms of running an Engineering Design course, Roberta Tevlin is the master at running the course and is always generous with sharing her resources. You can read about one example from this course, Barges here.

Best of luck on your new course! You won’t regret the effort!

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