IDL in Teacher Education, Part One: The IDL Implementation Gap

Within Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), interdisciplinary learning (IDL) is one of four contexts for learning (along with curriculum areas and subjects; ethos and life of the school; and opportunities for personal achievement). However, despite its supposed centrality within CfE, IDL has ‘not yet become a habitual learning approach in all of Scotland’s schools’ (Education Scotland 2020, p2). The first of two articles exploring the IDL implementation gap from the perspective of initial teacher education, this post exemplifies how, as a teacher educator, I support my primary teaching students in critical reflection on IDL guidance.  In the second article, I describe an approach to dramatic enquiry that is providing a framework for students to develop and implement their own IDL lessons.

There should be adequate time and space in initial teacher education devoted ‘to discourse relating to the nature of – and ways to – facilitate IDL thinking and learning’ (RSE 2020, p.9). For our student teachers, this includes critical analysis of national guidance on IDL.

Education Scotland’s 2020 publication Interdisciplinary Learning: Ambitious learning for an increasingly complex world aimed to ‘generate a set of recommendations from the profession, for the profession’.   Our teaching students unpicked some statements presented in Ambitious Learning about the difference between disciplinary and interdisciplinary learning.

Where, in a traditional classroom, the practitioner holds the keys to the next step, in an IDL experience every learner can express what they’re learning today, and why. (Education Scotland, 2020, p.12).

The students observed that this can, and should, also be the case in inquiry-driven disciplinary learning.

Learning is joyful when learners are engaged in an IDL experience. (ibid., p.14)

The students asked if disciplinary learning could not also be ‘joyful’. Is all IDL learning joyful? For all learners, at all times?

Two principal reasons for the variable consistency and quality of IDL in Scottish schools are a lack of conceptual clarity and a lack of exemplification (RSE, 2020). Despite a recent refocusing of thinking in Scottish education around IDL, criticisms of CfE guidance on IDL as being ‘well-intentioned but rather ill-defined’ (Humes, 2016:92) remain an ongoing concern, with pleas to address the lack of good exemplification still unheeded (RSE, 2020).

Ambitious Learning certainly set my students’ brains whirring. Once again however, what is most notably missing from this national refocus on IDL are robust examples of practice. The recommendations set out in Ambitious learning for an increasingly complex world tend to focus on the secondary sector and on qualifications and timetabling. While this is understandable given the greater logistical challenges in secondary (STEMEC, 2016), the primary sector is still a long way from getting IDL uniformly right (STEMEC 2016; Graham, et al., 2017; RSE, 2020).  A balanced, systemic approach across both sectors is needed.

As teachers at the outset of their careers, my students are faced with a conundrum. If a lack of conceptual clarity prevails amongst many of their more experienced colleagues, exacerbated by a sparsity of robust IDL exemplification, how might they, as beginner teachers, be expected to develop their IDL understanding and practice?

Student teachers benefit from the demonstration of practical examples, along with opportunities for the students themselves to develop and implement IDL lessons (Harvie, 2018). In my second article I describe how, in learning about an approach to dramatic enquiry, our students are developing their practical understanding of IDL.


Education Scotland (2020) Interdisciplinary Learning: ambitious learning for an increasingly complex world. Available at: (Accessed: 04/10/22). 

Graham, C., Williams, G., Bryce, S. and McKenna, J. (2017) Pillars and Lintels: The What’s, Why’s and How’s of Interdisciplinary Learning in STEM Education. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. Available at: (Accessed: 04/10/22)

Harvie, J. (2018) Interdisciplinary Learning: A Chimera of Scottish Education?. PhD Thesis. University of Stirling. Available at: (Accessed: 30/01/22).

Humes, W. (2013) ‘Curriculum for Excellence and Interdisciplinary Learning, Scottish Educational Review, 45 (1), pp. 82-93. Available at:  (Accessed: 04/10/22). 

Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) (2020) Advice Paper: embedding interdisciplinary learning in Scottish schools. Available at: (Accessed: 04/10/22). Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Committee (STEMEC) (2016) STEMEC Report 2016. Available at: (Accessed: 04/10/22).

Featured image: Teasel. © 2022 Nick Hood.

Author: Nikki Doig

Nikki Doig is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Dundee.

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