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).