Dagmar Osterloh
Interdisciplinary lessons and projects with CLIL

Thematische Schülerrallye zum Ersten Weltkrieg
© Goethe-Institut Paris

a better or more sustainable means of acquiring knowledge?

Who has not dreamed that new knowledge could be acquired and accessed in an enjoyable and virtually automatic way –  at the press of a button, as it were?

If so, this would make our early years a kind of paradise of knowledge acquisition. Yet hardly have we left our early childhood behind us – a time when we crawl around discovering the world around us and managing to successfully communicate through gestures and baby-talk – most of us find that learning, and especially formal school learning, rarely happens “as if by magic”.

Psychologists, neurobiologists and educational theorists have been exploring the factors that are responsible for this “ingenious learning” and how this could be initiated and implemented in the school context so that young people are able to work out solutions to current and future challenges in all their complexity and interdependency. 

learning successfully at school – but how?

Unfortunately, no magic formula has been found for this as yet, though a variety of theoretical approaches and practical observations do indicate the elements that determine whether learning will be successful. Motivational researchers for example have discovered that an interest in learning is fostered if students are active themselves, if the activities they are involved in are meaningful, if they are embedded in a social context and if they experience competence. These are the four elements at the heart of CLIL and interdisciplinary project teaching; they are as it were the pedagogical and didactical guideline. 

added value through interdisciplinary german-language CLIL lessons

Interdisciplinary CLIL lessons in German, and interdisciplinary CLIL projects, allow learners to engage in a meaningful and active way with subject content and language use in the target and native languages. This is a harmonious triad comprising cooperation, technical knowledge and language learning, which more lastingly fosters achievements within the concept of lifelong learning. This has been impressively confirmed by the fact that pupil achievements have been above average in terms of both content and language quality, and by the enthusiastic reports from teachers who took part in the nationwide interdisciplinary CLIL school projects run by the Goethe-Institut Paris. 

Anything is conceivable and feasible: german plus history, Biology or art … or indeed history, biology and maths lessons in german

For a limited period, between two and five subject teachers (physics, history, music, maths, biology, art, geography, English, electrical engineering or philosophy teachers) in each case work together with German teachers and their pupils on all kinds of different topics such as water, mathematics, the First World War or exploring the city – focusing on content and language, they explore a topic in all of its complexity from different perspectives and pursue creative practical projects. 

criticism of today’s subject-teaching model

However, to this day a marked differentiation between different areas of knowledge prevails, reflecting how these fields have become more and more distinct and specialized over the course of the centuries: divided first into humanities, natural and social sciences, then into individual school subjects such as physics, biology and chemistry, and then into “sub-disciplines” such as genetics, biochemistry or ecology in the subject of biology. Currently, knowledge is conveyed almost solely through the specific subject; pupils learn about geometry in mathematics, about decolonialization in history and about conjugation rules in German.

Abschlussfoto Erinnerungsprojekt © Goethe-Institut Paris

Digital progress and the world in which pupils live today

It would appear that this method of organizing lessons no longer reflects our rapidly changing society. Who would have thought ten years ago that digital media would enable such quick access to and development of knowledge that is accessible everywhere and all the time, or that children and young people would have to cope with an increasing flood of information and will probably evolve to become “prosumers” who not only consume but also produce content on the Internet?

The world in which pupils live today has become far more complex, and is virtually impossible to predict. The world of work has also changed dramatically as a result of globalization processes and will in future require new professional skills such as the ability to work independently or in a team. 

New requirements for school education

This is why modern academic fields often work on an interdisciplinary basis with a view to finding common solutions; content is rarely linked in the range of subjects on offer at school, on the other hand. Complex problems tend to be boiled down to the perspective of the subject in question, which in many cases can lead to “pigeon-holing“ and people specializing in a particular field while remaining blind to everything else – both of which are justifiably criticized. Not all relevant new subject content is covered by the current range of subjects on offer; various topics in the fields of law, medicine and Web 2.0 spring to mind. And cross-disciplinary issues such as peace studies or environmental education cannot be dealt with within one subject at all!

It is hardly surprising therefore that the current way that lessons are organized by subject is increasingly criticized by academics and researchers. There are also new political requirements for school education, e.g. “competence orientation”, “orientation knowledge” and “teaching of key skills” as the basis for lifelong learning. 

one key to successful learning: the concept of multidimensional learning

One of the most important tasks of education is to give young people an understanding of and an ability to deal with complex problems. To ensure that the knowledge to be acquired is learnt in a lasting manner, it should be elaborated and applied in as many different contexts as possible: at different times, in different situations, with different objectives and from different conceptual perspectives; this is the conclusion drawn by teaching and learning research with respect to school lessons. This is why education expert Siegbert A. Warwitz introduced multidimensional learning in the 1970s – an approach to teaching and learning that gives consideration to the structure and requirements of the subject matter and to the individual and real circumstances prevailing at the school; this is because he found that largely one-sided subject teaching, be it theoretical or practical in nature, did not lead to any satisfactory educational outcomes and proved inefficient in terms of learning success and motivation [1]. 

should schools nowadays still be guided by a vision of “grammar school-taught intellectuals”?

Andreas Flitner, an emeritus professor of education science, expressed this in even less uncertain terms when he wrote in 1987 that, in schools, “(…) everything ends up being about 'lessons' and book knowledge, whereas it should be about experience, interpreting life and applying practical skills.” [2] He believed that a “vision of grammar school-taught intellectuals” predominated and that pupils tended to acquire only second- and third-hand experience, which does not motivate them to learn. Because they spend more time at school nowadays, children and young people are no longer able – as they were in the past – to pursue activities with and in their environments, while schools do not enable the cognitive, emotional and social learning processes associated with such activities.

The result is that lessons based on a systematic subject structure cause pupil interest to diminish; what is more, despite having extensive subject knowledge in many cases, pupils are often unable to constructively apply this knowledge in situations in which such knowledge should help them deal with the situation in question, because they only have “latent knowledge”. We probably all know what it feels like to have forgotten vocabulary we once had to learn for a test when we actually need it later on in a concrete communication scenario. 

peterssen’s Definition of interdisciplinary teaching

Interdisciplinary (CLIL) teaching offers an effective remedy. The renowned school pedagogue Wilhelm Peterssen defines this as follows: “Lessons that interlink different subjects separate out subject teaching in a way that preserves its advantages while overcoming its disadvantages. They are designed as topic-centred integrative lessons that equally involve several subjects.” [3] In other words, interdisciplinary lessons are both a way of organizing lessons and a concept for lessons.

In 1995, Professor Ludwig Huber compiled a system illustrating the existing levels and forms of interdisciplinary teaching, beginning with individual teachers who make an initial attempt within their own subject to exceed the boundaries of that subject in order to incorporate content from other subjects or related matters. The next stage involves teachers in two or more subjects working together on a particular joint topic, mutually drawing wherever applicable on technical knowledge from the other subject, though without this cooperation requiring any intensive coordination. 

different Forms of interdisciplinary teaching according to Peterssen

Lessons that coordinate or interlink different subjects involve two or more subject teachers jointly planning the lessons and coordinating their work during the process. Specifically, this means that lessons will still be given by the subject teachers with their respective content focus, yet cooperation between the teachers will be more or less intensive depending on the situation. Lessons that include supplementary content are an even more intensive form of coordinated cooperation; in this situation topic-based courses and projects are offered in parallel and as a supplement to the actual subject lessons. Last but not least, subject lessons can be suspended for a defined period in schools, with for example project weeks being used to replace them during certain phases or periods of time. When subjects are suspended in this way, teachers are not burdened by the time and effort involved in continuing to provide content lessons in parallel, which also means that non-school learning settings can be more easily incorporated. [4] 

Additive versus integrative Models of interdisciplinary teaching

Interdisciplinary teaching can also be differentiated in another way, however – namely according to its approach, as the education expert Walter Popp did in 1997. In the additive approach, an attempt is made to teach the same topic in two or more subjects – this is known as “subject specialization”. The integrative approach is all about exploring, reflecting upon, reproducing and restructuring selected fields of activity – “perspectivist teaching” – and about active attempts to deal with fields of activity and phenomena relevant to the real world – “action-based teaching”. To this end, not only are pupils supposed to be trained as specialists in a particular subject, but schools should teach pupils equally intensively to specialize in interdependencies. [5] 

hurdles and obstalces to the introduction/implementation of interdisciplinary CLIL lessons

Some critics will object, with a certain justification, that there are various aspects that make it more difficult to implement interdisciplinary (CLIL) lessons; for example the fact that teachers find themselves reaching their limits in terms of content knowledge and language skills, that they need to spend a lot of time on preparation and on discussions with colleagues, and that many teachers still see themselves as “lone warriors”. What is more, the extensive content prescribed by curricula leaves virtually no time or scope for such cooperation, especially in cases where head teachers are not sufficiently open to the idea of dispensing with established organizational principles. 

prerequisites for successful interdisciplinary CLIL lessons

Interdisciplinary CLIL lessons can always be successful “if designed as topic-centred integrative lessons that involve several subjects equally. One central issue becomes the starting point; the link is achieved by a higher-level educational objective. The involved subjects – as integrated subjects – make their contributions to the higher-level goal and to the central topic in each of their subject-specific ways and with their habitual solidity. The arrangement needs to be aligned with the combination of subjects and their particular goals. Lessons that combine different subjects can only be the result of discussions and agreements within the participating subjects and/or by their teachers.” [6]   

interdisciplinary cooperation between language and content teachers: jointly more successful in conveying complex topics

In summary, it can be said that interdisciplinary CLIL lessons take pedagogical aspects of integral learning that have their roots in progressive education and combine them with problem-based learning approaches such as those in example-based, imaginative and scene-based learning, or indeed learning through empirical research. Content and foreign language teachers can use appropriate methods and strategies to successfully convey a complex topic from multiple perspectives. Such teaching also promotes reflective learning because it allows pupils to familiarize themselves with different intercultural perspectives and ways of accessing different problems, which they can use as an introduction to further academic study. 

just give it a try: an appeal for a “dash” of interdisciplinary CLIL teaching

The interdisciplinary approach can take a variety of forms – as interdisciplinary lessons or as transdisciplinary project days or project weeks. One thing is certain: this means of conveying knowledge helps pupils become more independent, take responsibility for themselves and adopt “joined-up thinking”, while at the same time improving their ability to communicate with various partners outside the school environment.

And when all of these ingredients come together, it would appear that there is no limit to pupils’ enjoyment, motivation and willingness to work! With the result that learning can happen “as if by magic” after all.  


[1] Vgl. Siegbert A. Warwitz, Vom Sinn des Spielens, Gütersloh 1970.
[2] Wie kann fächerübergreifendes Lernen unterrichtet werden? sowi-online
[3] Wilhelm Peterßen, Fächerverbindender Unterricht: Begriff – Konzept – Planung – Beispiele, Oldenburg 1997, S. 79.
[4] Vgl. Ludwig Huber, Fachübergreifender und fächerverbindender Unterricht in der gymnasialen Oberstufe, hrsg. v. Landesinstitut für Bildung Soest, 1997.
[5] Vgl. Duncker, Ludwig/Popp, Walter (Hrsg.): Über Fachgrenzen hinaus. Chancen und Schwierigkeiten des fächerübergreifenden Lehrens und Lernens. Heinsberg, 1997, S.149 f. 
[6] Wilhelm Peterßen, ebd., S.79.

about the author

Dagmar Osterloh © Fotostudio Schloen Köln On the basis of her many years of practical educational experience as a bilingual teacher of geography and history in Germany and France, Dagmar Osterloh has now been providing teachers with continuing education in CLIL at secondary school level for more than 15 years.

Initially, she focused on providing participants with methodological and didactic know-how and the necessary tools for giving bilingual content lessons, but later – as head of the German education cooperation section at the Goethe-Institut in France – concentrated increasingly on devising and running interdisciplinary projects, incorporating the expertise she had acquired during her additional training in journalism and from creativity research.

She further enhanced her skills by getting language and content teachers – especially those in the natural sciences who in many cases had little or no knowledge of German – to successfully collaborate.