female-scientist“The best way to understand circles is to reinvent the wheel.”   Nicholas Negroponte, Founder MIT Media Lab


My thinking about the purpose of academic subjects has evolved quite a bit over the last decade. Even the use of the word “disciplines” instead of “subjects” demonstrates how my thinking has changed.

What I used to think…

  • I didn’t give much thought to their purpose and function
  • I really didn’t deeply consider their structure or distinct characteristicts
  • I thought Social Studies was the key to student empowerment: skills of activism, concepts of power and freedom
  • I thought the other subjects were sort of necessary hoops to jump through toward college and careers but probably otherwise not useful for empowerment
  • I thought teachers were supposed to explain things and show students how to do things that experts in the field discovered on their own

Now I think…

  • Each discipline is a unique way to make sense of a super complex world
  • The word “subjects” implies coverage. “Disciplines” implies order, self-control and application of standards to thoughts and actions
  • Their purpose, function and structure need to be deeply understood for retention, making sense of new situations and innovating
  • Expert ways of thinking in each discipline are needed as our world’s problems become increasingly complex. We cannot solve them through one lens alone.
  • Teachers should design experiences so that students actually practice the type of thinking that experts in the discipline use
  • Students should discover phenomena using similar techniques that experts used to discover them

How do we shift from teaching “subjects” to cultivating academic “discipline”?

1. Write some enduring understandings about key moves disciplinarians make.


disciplinary thinking

2. Design instruction that requires students to discover and reflect upon this enduring understanding.

3. Set up a new situation requiring the transfer of the disciplinary way of thinking.

4. Have students reflect on their use of this disciplinary way of thinking.

Another tip is to read about disciplinary thinking in your field. A few suggestions:

History: Sam Wineburg, Tom Holt

Mathematics: Paul Lockhart

Science: James Trefil

Language Arts: Lois Lanning

More from us on how to get there is here. Ask yourself, “How can I set up the learning experiences so that students are actually behaving like the disicplinarians in my field?” There is no one way to do this. Experiment with some methods and let us know how it goes!

“Mental acuity of any kind comes from solving problems yourself, not from being told how to solve them.” – Lockhart, A Mathematician’s Lament