I is for Interdisciplinarity

9 07 2017

cage concert governors islandIt’s probably not surprising that two shows I went to in New York this month were serendipitously connected. One was an outdoor performance of a piece by John Cage for prepared piano. The other was the current Robert Rauschenberg exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (see link here).  I say not surprising, because both artists lived and worked in New York at some point in their trajectories. (In fact, Cage taught at The New School where I am currently based). More significantly, both taught and collaborated at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the early fifties, a collaboration which is celebrated and documented in the MoMA exhibition. The famous but unrecorded Theater Piece No. 1 that they both mounted in 1952, in collaboration with other Black Mountain stalwarts, such as the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, the poet Charles Olson and the pianist David Tudor (playing on a prepared piano), is generally credited as being the precursor of the ‘happening’.


prepared piano

a prepared piano


Black Mountain College was an independent residential school set up in 1933, staffed by, among others, a number of artists and intellectuals fleeing fascism in Europe. It offered an experimental liberal arts education that was inspired in part by John Dewey’s notion of experiential learning; (Dewey himself served as an advisor for a time). There was no predetermined curriculum – students were encouraged to design their own courses –  and equal weight was given to both the sciences and the arts.

As Lehmann (2015, p. 102) describes it, ‘Experimentation served not only as the dominant method of learning and teaching, but also as a means of developing artistic skills, which were explicitly held to be learnable by everyone’.

One of its most influential teachers was Josef Albers, its professor of art, who has previously taught at the Bauhaus in Berlin: his pedagogical approach is what we might now call task- or activity-based, i.e. an approach that begins with experimentation and where the teacher intercedes only at the point of need. Asked what kind of teachers he envisaged, he replied, ‘I would like to have professors of carpentry but I would say ‘Let the freshmen make all the mistakes and then let the professor of carpentry show him how to do it!’… Give them freedom first.” (quoted in Blume et al, 2015, p. 140).


rauschenberg's goat

Rauschenberg’s goat

Fundamental to the Black Mountain experience was its cross-curricular philosophy, i.e. its interdisciplinarity, a tradition inherited from the Bauhaus, whose mission was ‘to abolish the institutionally calcified separation between creative disciplines’ (Eggelhöfer 2015, p. 111). One way that the distinctions between subject areas were elided was through collaborative projects which drew on a multiplicity of skills. Theater Piece No. 1 was a case in point. (A recent exhibition on Black Mountain College at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin was called Black Mountain: An interdisciplinary experiment.)


The interdisciplinary and task-based approach to education pioneered at Black Mountain survives – or has been revived – in two very different contexts, as reported recently in the press and social media.

In Finland, a major reform of an already highly-rated educational system involves a transversal approach to curriculum design, whereby interdisciplinary projects require students to draw on a range of subject areas in what is called ‘phenomenon-based’ education. Contrary to some press reports, this does not mean dismantling the subject-based curriculum entirely. As one Finnish educator describes it:

What will change in 2016 is that all basic schools for seven to 16-year-olds must have at least one extended period of multi-disciplinary, phenomenon-based teaching and learning in their curricula. The length of this period is to be decided by schools themselves.

The rationale is spelled out thus:

What Finnish youth need more than before are more integrated knowledge and skills about real world issues, many argue. An integrated approach, based on lessons from some schools with longer experience of that, enhances teacher collaboration in schools and makes learning more meaningful to students.

Presumably, the learning of foreign languages such as English, is a candidate for such integration.

Also in Europe, but in a less privileged context, a public primary school in Barcelona attracted media attention recently after winning a prestigious prize for its pedagogical approach. The Joaquim Ruyra School in a predominantly working-class suburb, and where 9 in every 10 students are the children of immigrants, has been outscoring local schools, including some upmarket private schools, on tests in a range of skills, English language being just one. Its approach is essentially activity-based: groups of students work through a cycle of tasks over one lesson, each group working on a different task for twenty minutes before moving to the next. The teacher, working with volunteers – mostly family members – supervises the tasks, and elicits an evaluation of each task’s outcomes. Tasks typically involve collaborative problem-solving and guided discovery, and, while the traditional division between subjects hasn’t been collapsed, the tasks (I imagine) involve deploying a far wider range of cognitive and linguistic skills than do the more mechanical exercises associated with testing delivery-style modes of teaching.

Joaquim Ruyra classroom El Mundo

The Joaquim Ruyra school (from El Mundo)


Both the Finnish and Catalan experiments are consistent with the Black Mountain College principles that challenge traditional curricular structures – specifically the tight division into subjects, and lockstep, transmissive teaching.

As far as I know, there was no language teaching at Black Mountain. Had there been, I wonder what it would have been like?



Blume, E., Felix, M., Knapstein, G., and Nichols, C. (eds) Black Mountain: An interdisciplinary experiment 1933-1957. Berlin: Spector Books.

Eggelhöfer, F. (2015) ‘Processes instead of results: what was taught at the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College,’ in Blume, et al (eds).

Lehmann, A. J. (2015) ‘Pedagogical practices and models of creativity at Black Mountain College’, in Blume, et al. (eds).




9 responses

9 07 2017
Justin Willoughby

“Tasks will likely create a rich linguistic environment capable of activating the learners’ intuitive heuristics (Kumaravadivelu,1994), which are natural cognitive processes used both consciously and unconsciously for developing the somewhat separate rules systems that underlie language comprehension and production.” Richards JC, WA Renandya (2002, Methodology in Language Teaching, CUP). I think I am pretty sure that teaching at Black Mountain (had there been language teaching there) would have been something like task-or-content based as that was the approach being used. For me, the question, at both Black Mountain and in my classroom, is which tasks. A game? A speaking activity? A project? How do you know which tasks are best for your students for learning?

10 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Justin. Yes, definitely task/activity/project based. Even ‘phenomenon based ‘, to borrow from the fins. I wonder about ‘content based’, though: this may have been a bridge too far in the 1930s. Having said that, I suspect that many of the European intellectuals who arrived as students or instructors would have honed their English language skills simply through immersion in the Black Mountain community. Albers claimed to speak no English when he arrived from Berlin, but seems to have achieved impressive levels of proficiency relatively rapidly.

11 07 2017
Justin Willoughby

The case of Albers must advocate any approach to socioconstructivist theory in that learning is an interaction and we learn from our more knowledgeable others. The intellectual discussions that he would have participated in would have made the language more meaningful and so more memorable. He must have been very motivated to understand the content and make his own valid contributions. He probably made inferences or asked about unknown grammar and lexis, and perhaps due to the very collaborative nature of the community’s philosophy, he may have received peer correction on his pronunciation and grammar and hence been able to notice gaps in his interlanguage.

9 07 2017

Richard Buckminster-Fuller also taught at Black Rock College. He was a true eclecticist and boundryless polymath. Really engaging teachers and the best communicators seem to be, Richard Feynman is another erudite example. And this may lie at the heart of it: variety. Strong communicators have a range and depth of subjects and competencies they can enter into and link together, and that enriches communication and interaction. So my view in language teaching is to give learners a large degree of freedom to explore the big sprawling general beast that is the language, not focusing on English for Specific Purposes or over-drilling of PPP and similar rigid methods.

10 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Luan: you are quite right that Buckminster Fuller was another Black Mountain luminary. The catalogue of the Berlin exhibition (Blume et al) has this to say: ‘As a result of this emphasis on the processes of teaching and learning, people became more interested in what they didn’t know than in what they did know. One of the teachers to adopt this unorthodox approach to education was the engineer, inventor, architect, poet, philosopher, and pioneer of modern ecology Richard Buckminster Fuller, who spent the summers of 1948 and 1949 teaching at Black Mountain… His teaching system was quite non-academic. Indeed, one could even claim that he was something of a pioneer in project-based teaching, often merging student exercises with his own research. Charismatic and enthusiastic, Fuller was widely held to be an inspiring teacher. Since he was working on the design of his geodesic dome time, he encouraged his students to help build a self-supporting spherical structure. Their attempts to raise the dome in 1948 failed so dismally that the result was nicknamed the ‘Supine Dome.’ Yet when Fuller returned to the college the following summer, his course proved a triumph, and the dome he succeeded in creating with the students… marked the starting point of his influential and ongoing humanitarian design project.’

11 07 2017

Inspiring stuff!

11 07 2017

BMC is a fascinating story that I need to know more about. Thanks for the reminder. A while back I heard a rich reflection on the college on Christopher Lydon’s Open Source podcast at http://radioopensource.org/black-mountain-college/ Where he traces it back to William James and Pragmatism (as Lydon is wont to do with so many things) via John Rice “who had been famously fired from a college in south Florida for having too many eccentric ideas about education.”

One pull from Louis Menand: “They don’t have to do it well, they just have to do it. And they’ll by doing it develop certain capacities they can’t in any other way.”

The podcast paints a beautiful picture with Rauschenberg and Twombly “bashing out music in the dining hall,” one winter night until one of them winds up freezing in the lake.

“They let things happen,” which doesn’t happen enough anymore.

The whole episode is a ramble through archival tapes and memories of Ted Dreier Jr. and talk with those who are carrying BMC forward today. Worth an hour of anyone’s time and an example of an interdisciplinary view.

12 07 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Ted, and thanks for the link. It’ll make great listening on the way home.

On the subject of ‘bashing out music in the dining hall’, John Cage recollects, ‘What I think was so important at Black Mountain was that we all ate our meals together. For instance, I was teaching music composition, but no one was studying with me. I had no students. But I would sit at table 3 times a day and there would be conversation. And those meals were the classes. And ideas would come out.’ (Blume et al, p. 101).

20 07 2017
Barry Tadman

We have a copy of Josef Albers’ ‘Interaction of colour’ in the Macmillan office to help understand how colours can push or pull into each other in our books. It’s quite common to see the ‘Bezold Effect’ in course book realia cause a reviewer to complain that a book design looks dull even when the colours are not.

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