Interdisciplinary Education and the Student Voice
Understanding the qualities of the interdisciplinary practitioner.
Posted Apr 20, 2017
People sometimes talk about the need to bring academic disciplines together to tackle complex societal problems. It makes sense. Different disciplines bring different knowledge and methodological skill to problematic situations, and a good synthesis of this knowledge and skill can often help a group arrive at more effective and efficient solutions to problems. But there’s a problem with the general design of our education system: we generally don’t focus much attention on cultivating interdisciplinary skills and dispositions in students, and we generally don’t provide students with an option to receive an interdisciplinary education.
Indeed, the idea of an interdisciplinary University education is historically alien to many countries, including the UK. A notable exception in the UK is the relatively new Bachelor in Arts and Sciences (BASc) at University College London (UCL). It began in 2012 with an initial intake of 87 students and it currently includes approximately 450 students in steady state. Students can take modules from across the humanities, sciences, and engineering—akin to a model of University education that has been available in the United States for many years. One unique feature of the BASc is that all students, whatever their specialism, must take some courses from both science and non-science disciplines at each year of their studies.
We know very little internationally about the experience of students receiving an interdisciplinary education. Amid calls of “education for global leaders,” and “educating the researchers of tomorrow,” we need to make a greater effort to study carefully what it takes to be a good interdisciplinary practitioner.
Carl Gombrich, as director of the BASc at University College London, is taking steps to expand our knowledge of interdisciplinary education and the student experience. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Carl and his team in London. We wrote a book chapter together reporting the results of intensive interviews that Carl conducted with his students. We were particularly interested synthesizing students’ views in relation to a few key questions. Specifically, we were interested to understand more about the key intellectual and personal qualities that students considered important to be successful on the course and when working in an interdisciplinary context more generally. The results were fascinating.
Across all the interview transcripts, students repeatedly highlighted the importance of four qualities: openness, creativity, bridging, and perspective-taking. Collectively, students described these qualities as important for the individual interdisciplinary learner and for the success of interdisciplinary groups. We combine the quotes and narrative below with a view on what the scientific literature says about the importance of the qualities students identified.
Students said it again and again: “You need to be very open-minded”; “Well the obvious one would be to be open-minded.”; and “Well, I guess just open-minded, and accepting”.
Indeed, students highlighted learning to be open-minded as one of the first major challenges in the program: “I think what I had to learn probably in the beginning is to be very open-minded about everything.”
Another student suggested that openness, as a trait or disposition, may be more important than specific academic skills and an attribute that interdisciplinary program directors may want to cultivate, and as critically important in addressing challenges that might be thrown at you when encountering several disciplines at once.
The student voice resonates with research in the field of personality and educational psychology. Notably, Openness to Experience is one of the “Big 5” personality traits used to describe people who are willing and often eager to encounter a wide variety of ideas, feelings, and activities. Openness is seen in the recurrent need to “enlarge and examine experience” (McCrae and Costa, 1997, p. 826). Academically speaking, openness may be valuable and important. For example, Altaras-Dimitrijević (2012) found that intellectually gifted students score higher on Openness to Fantasy, Aesthetics, and Ideas. At the same time, other studies have reported weak correlations of .20 to .26 between openness and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) performance and GPA scores (Noftle & Robbins 2007). In an interdisciplinary education context, openness does not stand alone as the only quality students identified as important. They clearly recognised creativity as important also.
When interviewed, students often talked about creativity as directly linked to notions of interdisciplinarity itself and they also grappled with the question of whether creativity could be taught.
“The intellectual qualities you need?—Creativity definitely, creative problem solving all around, also because with Core modules you always need to see stuff from different perspectives...in fact, all the modules which are tailored for BASc people, like our new engineering courses. I think they really push this creative problem solving…The reason why I chose arts and sciences was because I thought it would be a way in which I could be creative and technical at the same time. I think there’s also a level of curiosity plus hard working as the ingredients to this creativity. It’s a matter of wanting to dive into many different things, which is curiosity, and hard-working, having the ambition to dive to a point at which you can be—I don’t know...critically creative—create a solution as opposed to write down something that you’ve memorized from before.”
The idea of being “critically creative” resonates with calls for the development of both critical and creative thinking skills in students, specifically to support what Wertheimer called productive thinking (Wertheimer 1959). Recently, there have been calls to focus on the development of mindful, critical, and collaborative thinking skills in team-based interdisciplinary contexts (Hogan et. al. 2014). This will require continued innovation and experimentation in our approach to teaching in school and university contexts. Creativity scholars have long bemoaned what they see as a dull and ineffective ‘standard education model’, which largely focuses on the transmission and acquisition of knowledge in a regimented and structured manner in classrooms. Students are then put under intense pressure to memorise and later recall this knowledge in an examination context. It is argued that this approach to teaching results in a creativity deficit in students (cf. Beghetto & Kaufman 2010). Coming from a different education model into an interdisciplinary degree program may therefore require some significant adjustment, and students may need support to develop creativity, critical thinking, and team-based project work skills.
Teaching staff also need to work harder to negotiate the curriculum and learning outcomes with students, as creativity may be driven in large part by an intrinsic motivation whereby students are passionately engaged in addressing problems that they care about. As noted by Boomer (1992, p. 13), “if teachers set out to teach according to a planned curriculum, without engaging the interests of the students, the quality of learning will suffer. Student interest involves student investment and personal commitment...[and] negotiating the curriculum.” Indeed, research suggests that university students generally prefer it when their teachers use creativity-generating teaching styles (Zhang et al. 2005). Recent research (Putwain et al. 2012) has also shown that creative self-belief is positively related to intrinsic motivation, and that intrinsic motivation and achievement influence one another in a positive and reciprocal manner (Corpus et al., 2009). Thus, an interdisciplinary degree curriculum that negotiates learning outcomes with students, nurtures creative self-belief, and cultivates intrinsic motivation in students may support higher achievement. But we also need to understand how best to cultivate creativity in a way that facilitates interdisciplinary work. Students highlighted “bridging” as a particularly important quality in this context.
Bridging is an idea that appears in interdisciplinarity literature, and its importance was borne out in several student responses:
“I think [interdisciplinarity is]…bridging a gap that is massive and obvious…I feel a bit cliché saying this, but in my environmental physics they describe economists as having a completely different view, so physicists “know better.” But really they have completely different approaches but they’re all in the same chain.”
Moving beyond the standard education model, which often focuses on individual learners, and the value of individual disciplines, there is a shift to a focus on groups and how team-level performance can be critical for some types of interdisciplinary work (Hogan et al. 2015).
One student described the interdisciplinarian as a potential bridge-builder and facilitator in projects that require teamwork.
“I think all of our group work here at BASc shows that people with different skill sets working together is important. Sometimes people speak the English language but they can’t speak the same academic language. I see the way scientists sometimes teach and they will just bore humanities people and switch them off. The other way round humanities people will try to go really deep into a subject and it will put others off. You can see that interdisciplinarity means you learn the language of both and you are a bridge. You connect the two together, and that, I think, is a way which will change the way that people work…I think knowledge is like a web, there are different fields and we become like the strings which connect each of them together. We are making loads of infinitesimal connections between them.”
Bridging implies a focus on collaborative learning and an ability to reflect on how teams process information, work on problems, and sustain effective collaboration dynamics. Effective bridging as an interdisciplinary practitioners may also involve the skills of group facilitation, feedback, instruction regarding the collaborative process and goals, the promotion of cooperative, exploratory discourse, the use of tools and methodologies that facilitate group coherence, and the management of complexity in group problem-solving situations (see Hogan et al. 2015). All of this work is supported by the ability to adopt multiple perspectives, and this is something the students at UCL also talked about.
As one student described it, “[Interdisciplinarity means] looking at problems from different perspectives. For me, that was how people express themselves through art, as I saw studying anthropology of art, but also how scientists look at it, and the psychology of it.”
And another student noted: “The Arts and Sciences course taught me to listen, I mean to be more objective in my judgment, because I always try to imagine why this person is saying this, why this person has this viewpoint. Well, it taught me that I’m not always right…the course taught me really to listen to viewpoints I don’t agree with is quite useful in relations with other people, even. I’ve become really more able to understand others and why they are doing what they are doing.”
Research suggests that perspective taking can be fostered in educational environments and can impact educational outcomes (Schultz et al. 2001). Indeed, even in the absence of dedicated “creativity training,” immersion in a culture of interdisciplinarity may be sufficient to promote perspective-taking, openness, and creativity in students.
Qualitative study of the student experience can provide useful insights into the nature of learning on interdisciplinary programs. Interdisciplinary education is unique in many ways and opens up a vast and complex area of research. Interdisciplinary education has its passionate advocates and its detractors. It may be that some of the most important outcomes of interdisciplinary education may involve the learning of unique metacognitive skills and the fostering of key qualities such as open-mindedness, creativity, bridge-building, and perspective-taking. These qualities may support the integration and application of domain-specific knowledge, and forms of creativity that unfold in teamwork contexts.
If we are to value such dispositions and traits, as those in education, industry, and government say that we should, then the voice of students studying on interdisciplinary education programs is an important testimony and can help as a guide for future developments.
Altaras-Dimitrijević, A. (2012). A faceted eye on intellectual giftedness: Examining the personality of gifted students using FFM domains and facets. Psihologija, 45 (3), 231–256.
Beghetto, R. A., &Kaufman, J. C. (2010). Cultivating creativity in the classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Boomer, G. (1992). Negotiating the curriculum. In G. Boomer, N. Lester, C. Onore, & J. Cook (Eds.), Negotiating the curriculum: Educating for the 21st century, pp. 4–13. London: Falmer.
Corpus, J. H., McClintic-Gilbert, M. S., & Hayenga, A. O. (2009). Within-year changes in children’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivational orientations: Contextual predictors and academic outcomes. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34 (2), 154–166.
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