Understanding the Structure of Disciplinary Subjects

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will discuss the dominant structures and subcategories of several academic disciplines. We will look at some examples of discipline structures and how that may impact how those topics are taught.

Recognizing Patterns

Patrick is a middle school student who loves to watch TV and play video games, just like his friends. He is exceedingly clever and has always had a knack for recognizing patterns. Patrick notices that his favorite TV shows have a pattern within each episode, as well as an overarching theme in each season. His video games increase in difficulty with each level and culminate in the attempt to defeat the 'boss' villain at the end. At school, Patrick's pattern recognition skills help him view each day like an episode of a show, and the 'season' lasts all school year. He sees each chapter or unit or quiz or assignment like he's leveling up in a game. At the end, he finally defeats the 'boss' on the final exam level, effectively winning the game. Just like the patterns in TV and games help Patrick engage in the content, structural patterns in class content help students connect with what they learn.

Structure of Disciplinary Subjects

In academics, the structure of a discipline may vary depending on the subject being taught, but usually will include three parts:

  • the organization of basic concepts
  • the definitions and explanations of these concepts and principles
  • some insights and generalizations within the discipline

Some disciplines allow for variation in how basic concepts are organized, such as varying between thematic organization and timeline organization in history lessons. Other subjects, like math, are necessarily fixed in a step-by-step organizational structure, advancing in difficulty and building on previous learning. For instance, one must first have basic number sense before introducing addition and subtraction, and these must be mastered before moving up to higher math concepts like algebra.

Defining and explaining concepts can illustrate differences in how terms are used within a disciplinary subject. This creates a discipline specific language so that the same word may have different meanings, i.e. words like 'impact' and 'mass' have different meanings in a science class compared to a social studies class.

Insights and generalizations within the discipline can help create structure. For example, in recognizing story structures within a genre, insights from literary analysis help readers detect general patterns across stories. These patterns help students make inferences and predictions between different texts. Insights and generalizations may also influence teaching methods for science and social studies subjects, like when there are competing theories or explanations for a phenomenon.

Curriculum Informs Structure Informs Instruction

Depending on the curriculum content being explored within a discipline, the structure may require different instructional styles that have different patterns of unit or lesson organization. Understanding how each of the disciplines is taught is critical to effective curriculum development.

In other words, in order to be a good teacher, it helps to have an understanding of how the structure of your discipline will impact how and what you teach. For students like Patrick, having an understanding of the pattern of a subject's intended instruction helps him pace his work efficiently and understand what will be expected of him.

The Structure of Disciplines

Let's take a look at some of the basic structures of the most common academic disciplines.


Sciences are usually organized by naming, describing, classifying, and categorizing of patterns and characteristics. Science also has the structure of designing research with the scientific method.

Subcategories within the structure of sciences may include topics such as chemistry, biology, geology, anatomy, astronomy, and physics. Around late elementary school, students begin working with the scientific method to conduct their own scientific research.


Mathematics are usually organized by gradually building the complexity of simpler concepts and expanding them with broader mathematical principles, like the 3 fundamental concepts of commutation, distribution, and association.

Subcategories within the structure of math may include topics such as elementary math skills like basic number sense and shape recognition, then step up to addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. These can eventually expand into algebra, geometry, calculus, and trigonometry. For students like Patrick, the step up in difficulty and building in complexity of principles is like scoring points and leveling up in a game.

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