Interdisciplinary Teaching: Integration of Physical Education Skills and Concepts with Mathematical Skills and Concepts Research Purposes


The purpose of this study was to investigate the teacher's implementation of interdisciplinary teaching that integrate physical education skills and concepts with mathematical skills and concepts in an integrated unit. Specific objectives for this study were to describe what interdisciplinary tasks looked like in physical education lessons and (b) identify how the teacher used instructional strategies to facilitate students' active engagement in interdisciplinary learning experiences.

Theoretical Perspectives

Constructivists view learners as active and constructive meaning makers. Learning occurs best when students make connections between their previous knowledge and current learning, when students are actively engaged in learning process, and when students collaborate with their peers and teachers (Dewey, 1988; Piaget, 1970; Vygotsky, 1978). Supporting the constructivist view of learning, brain researchers note that the brain uses previous experiences to organize new information and searches for meaning from those experiences. The brain perceives and processes information in an interconnected and holistic manner (Caine & Caine, 1991, Cromwell, 1989). In order to help students formulate deep understanding, it is crucial for teachers to provide students with meaningful and integrated learning experiences, to bridge gaps between concrete examples and abstracted concepts, to engage students in knowledge application and problem solving processes, and to create supportive and cooperative learning environment. Interdisciplinary teaching is viewed as one of the effective teaching approaches to meet the educational aims (Lancaster & Rikard, 2002; Lipson, Walencia, Wixson, & Peters, 1993). It integrates two or more subject areas into meaningful association in order to enhance and enrich students learning in each subject area (Cone, Werner, Cone, & Woods, 1998). Interdisciplinary teaching through physical education has received a great deal of attention by K-12 physical educators and teacher educators. Proponents view movement as an effective vehicle for providing integrative, concrete, and authentic contexts to extend and enhance students' learning of abstracted concepts in other subject areas (Christie, 2000; Cone et al., 1998). Through interdisciplinary teaching in physical education, the primary focus of learning movement concepts and motor skills would be enriched and complemented. A supplementary focus of helping students make meanings of abstract concepts in another subject area also would be augmented and reinforced. However, how teachers design integrated learning tasks and enact interdisciplinary teaching practices in a physical education setting to support this theoretical hypothesis still remains an untapped research area.

Research Methods

Participants and Research Setting

The second author, Theresa Purcell Cone, an accomplished elementary physical education teacher, and 35 students from two second-grade classes were selected as participants following receipt of parental permission. Dr. Cone has taught elementary physical education for more than 30 years and has expertise in interdisciplinary teaching. She is the lead author for Interdisciplinary Teaching Through Physical Education (Cone et al., 1998). She has published several articles on interdisciplinary teaching and has made numerous presentations related to using the interdisciplinary teaching approach at national, regional and state conventions. The rationale for choosing the second grade children included: (a) these students primarily function in Piaget's concrete operational stage, (b) the primary focus of the physical education curriculum for second grade is fundamental movement, and (c) second grade children are learning basic mathematical concepts and problems. The Brunswick Acres Elementary School in New Jersey was selected as the research setting because the student population represents a diversity of cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Integrated Unit

A four-lesson integrated unit was designed and taught to two, second grade classes. The major mathematical concepts that were integrated with locomotor movement and movement concepts were:

  • Directly compare and order objects according to measurable attributes: Length: inch, foot, yard, centimeter, meter
  • Select and use appropriate standard and non-standard measurement tools to solve real-life problems.
  • Estimate measures.
  • Apply relevant mathematical concepts to enrich learning experiences such as add all three measures, subtract one measure from the other measures.
  • Communicating results including collecting, illustrating, and interpreting measured data.

Data collection

The data were collected by video-taping and audio-taping the integrated lessons, coding the taped lessons, interviewing the teachers and students, and students' writing journal entries.

  • Video-taping and audio-taping the integrated lessons. Eight integrated lessons taught by the teacher to two second-grade classes were videotaped and audiotaped, respectively. The teacher was in video camera range at all times, as were most of the children. All videotaping and audiotaping began when the teacher started a lesson and continued until the teacher dismissed the class. The audiotaped lessons were transcribed for analysis.
  • Coding the taped lessons. Prior to coding the taped lessons, the first author watched the taped lessons while writing down the tentative assertions. Subsequently, the first author coded the taped lessons using the following protocols: (a) watching each of the taped lessons while reading a corresponding lesson transcript, (b) pressing the " Pause Key" to stop the TV and then highlighting the information reflecting the teacher's lesson introduction, interdisciplinary tasks, task presentation, task facilitation and guidance, (c) labeling the highlighted instances with a tentative assertion next to the corresponding margin of the lesson transcript, and (d) writing the summary of the lesson on the blank sheet. The third author used the same procedures to code the taped lessons independently.
  • Interviewing the teacher. The physical education teacher was interviewed using the semi-structured interview questions for about two hours at the end of the integrated unit to find out her rationales for designing the interdisciplinary tasks, reflections on her own interdisciplinary teaching, opinions about the students' engagement in integrated learning experiences. The interview was transcribed for later analysis.
  • Interviewing the students. Five students were randomly selected and interviewed using semi-structured interview questions at the end of each lesson. The interview questions focused on what they learned most from the lesson, what they liked, what they did not like from the lesson, and how they engaged in learning processes. The interviews weretranscribed for later analysis.
  • Students writing journal entries. The students wrote a journal entry for each integrated lesson to record their feelings, thoughts, and understanding about the interdisciplinary learning experiences. For each journal entry, students were presented with journal prompts (questions) to elicit their written responses.

Data analysis

The coded lesson transcripts and interview transcripts as well as students' journal entries were analyzed by using constant comparison technique (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). The investigators independently read and re-read the transcripts, identify similar information and label them with tentative assertions, group similar ideas into categories and identify negative cases, and summarize categories and negative cases to organize them into themes. The categories and themes emerged from independent analysis were compared and contrasted. The categories and themes were further discussed to reach agreement among the investigators. The qualitative data were further analyzed using ATLAS.IT qualitative data software


Designing Sequential, Integrative, and Authentic Learning Tasks.

The teacher designed inherent scope and progressive sequence for the interdisciplinary unit. First, she organized the integrated learning tasks in a sequential order within each lesson. In the beginning of each lesson, she used initial learning tasks to lay background knowledge for the students to pursue next actual measurement of locomotor movement. For example, the students were initially engaged in exploring different locomotor movements and movement patterns with different ranges, in different directions, and at different speeds while counting the number of steps and given steps they traveled and estimating the number of steps they would travel across the given distance individually and independently. During this phase of the lesson, she used locomotor movements and counting skills as the building block for the subsequent learning tasks. In the second part of the lesson, the students were working with their partner to actually measure how far their partner traveled, to estimate how many steps they would used to travel across a space, to count and calculate the number of repeated movement patterns they traveled across a given space, and to record the data on working sheet while using counting, addition, and subtraction skills. She progressively embraced relevant math concepts and skills into movement tasks to gradually challenge students' physical and cognitive involvement. For each learning task, locomotor movements and key relevant mathematical concepts were coherently blended and immersed together. The teacher also organized the four lessons into a progressive sequence within a unit. The first lesson used addition skills to measure the distance traveled by using three locomotor movements. The second lesson focused on using addition skills to measure how far traveled by using movement sequence. The third lesson used the locomotor movements as the measuring tools to estimate how many steps used to travel across the space and then to actually count the number of steps used for the travel. The last lesson used movement patterns as a tool to estimate the number of repeated movement patterns would be used and were actually used travel through the distance. The difficult levels of the integrated learning tasks were progressively increased in the context of practical application of relevant mathematical skills and use of locomotor movements as meaning tools for traveling across the space.

Encouraging Relevant, Constructive, and Collaborative Learning Experiences

To ensure the interdisciplinary learning experiences relevant to students, the teacher used students' prior knowledge and familiar language as a starting point for instruction. She started a lesson with having the students generate a shared manual of locomotor movement they learned previously. She then built the learning tasks on the students' generated ideas. When explaining a more complex learning tasks such as creating movement patterns, she put the students into real-life situations to explain what a pattern means and how to transfer the concept of pattern into movement pattern. Prior to teaching the integrated lessons, she asked a classroom teacher about what mathematical vocabulary the students knew, how to phrase questions to meet the students' cognitive levels. In her teaching, she intentionally used the language that the children were familiar with to present the integrated learning tasks such as "estimate how many repeats of the pattern would take you to get to the red line." In all lessons, the teacher encouraged the students to be responsible for their own learning. She asked the students to make decisions about what locomotor movements to be measured, how many steps used to travel, what movement patterns used to estimate and measure, and what measuring tools used for actual measure. She encouraged the students to control of their own practicing integrated learning tasks instead of her direct control of the students' task pursuit. For each lesson, the teacher provided the students with sufficient opportunities for students to work with their partners to accomplish the tasks jointly. They worked together to count their partner's movements and movement patterns, to mark their partner's starting and ending point of the traveled distance, and to measure their partner's actual traveling distance. When engaging in the collaborative tasks, the students are encouraged to listen to each other's ideas about how to do the tasks, to take turn providing constructive suggestions on the tasks, and to experiment with the ideas offered by others.

Providing Instructional Scaffolding and Specifying Goal-Oriented Criteria

The teacher consistently provided the students with instructional scaffolding that enable the students to do on their own what they initially could not do without support by the teacher and their peers. Prior to students' working with a partner to do actual measurement of movement, the teacher always provided structured guiding supports steps by steps. She asked the students to demonstrate how to do the task and how to help the partner to accomplish the task cooperatively. When students were experimenting with the collaborative tasks, the teacher shared task pursuit responsibilities with the students. Initially, she guided the students to try it out, to make judgment about the task quality, and to refine their tasks by asking questions, listening to students' thoughts on their plans and their reflections on the tasks, and providing on-going verbal cues, relevant clues, and critical feedback. Subsequently, she provided the students with a given time for engaging in the tasks on their own. Across the eight lessons, the teacher specified and scaffoled the goal-oriented criteria for each lesson. From very beginning, the students knew what they needed to accomplish by end of the class. The general goal-oriented criteria included: recording measurement data on a specified data sheet at the end of the class, making graph using the recording data, and interpreting their results in classroom. The criteria served as a target for the students to achieve.

Educational Significance

This study provided both researchers and practitioners with insights about how the physical education teacher designed sequential and meaningful integrated learning tasks to help students make meaning of abstracted math concepts in applied context and see meaning of locomotor movements as effective tools in real-life situations. This study described how the teacher used appropriate teaching strategies to expand students learning movement content and to deepen students' understanding of math concepts. The results suggested that interdisciplinary teaching should provided students with structured integrated learning tasks and supportive learning environment.

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