On Interdisciplinary Education – an interview with Dr Michael Hogan and Dr Carl Gombrich
Interdisciplinary education involves the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity . It is about creating something new by thinking across boundaries. Interdisciplinarity involves researchers, students, and teachers in the goals of connecting and integrating several academic schools of thought, professions, or technologies—along with their specific perspectives—in the pursuit of a common task. It can likewise be applied to complex subjects that can only be understood by combining the perspectives of two or more fields.
Interdisciplinary education is gaining prominence as we shift from the more traditional fields and subjects into different and new areas of study. Its novelty as a concept, however, raises certain questions, especially for students applying to and in college, like what it takes to pursue that field, what are the challenges of combining two or more disciplines, why it has gained prominence so suddenly, and how this concept influences our current education system and job market.
In “Interdisciplinary Education and the Student Voice” by Dr Michael Hogan, in collaboration with Dr Carl Gombrich, I found the beginnings of an answer to my questions, and I decided to reach out to them.
In context of interdisciplinary education, what does creativity mean to you? How is it important is it to be “critically creative”?
In the context of interdisciplinary education, creativity can be seen as the explicit synthesis of knowledge and methodologies from two or more disciplines to create a new product, analysis, theory, or application. When people with knowledge and skill from two or more disciplines come together to address a shared problem (e.g., when psychologists, medics, engineers, economists, sociologists, and others come together to focus on well-being in their local community) something radically new can emerge that transcends any one of the disciplines. As such, within and beyond the educational environment an interdisciplinary synthesis can sometimes produce a very creative transdisciplinary outcome. This is in line with what Arthur Koestler and others classically described as the essence of creativity: that most creativity emerges from combining two different ‘matrices’ of thought to make something new which is greater than the sum of its parts. For us, the ‘critical’ part of this emerges as a natural approach to any work done in an educational context, as, arguably, one of the main purposes of higher education has been to develop students’ critical thinking capacities. Specifically, any creative synthesis, to be truly impactful, must pass the test of critical thinking – upon close analysis and evaluation, we will arrive at the logical inference that this new, creative product adds value, solves a problem previously unsolved, helps to address a societal issue that could not have been addressed without the original interdisciplinary coordination. Now, we begin to see what interdisciplinary education is so important. It pushes along our cultural evolution.
In your article, you mentioned the importance of ‘bridging’ and the potential of the interdisciplinarian as a bridge builder between different disciplines. What do you think are the challenges students of different perspectives and disciplines could face during this process?
Bridging, it seems to us, is an immensely important yet still under-theorised and under-researched disposition and skilled behavior. It is naturally associated with perspective-taking but carries with it a more active meaning. ‘Taking perspectives’ can remain a passive enterprise but the ‘bridge builder’ must find the vocabulary, the methods and sometimes completely new cultural approaches to enable people with different epistemologies and methodologies to work together. The main challenge for a bridge builder, we think, (apart from any technical mastery necessary) is simply one of mental/cognitive maturity. Psychologists like Robert Kegan have argued that our ‘mental complexity’ can increase as we age (and under the right educational circumstances) and that there are natural limits to how mentally ‘complex’ teenagers and young adults can be – although we’re not sure we truly push those limits in traditional educational environments. Reaching and pushing for increasingly higher states of mental complexity allows us to empathise deeply with other positions and ways of being, without losing a sense of self – all important for a good bridge-builder. In a sense, then, we hope that interdisciplinary education will accelerate the process of developing mental complexity (thus facilitating becoming an effective bridge builder) by obliging young adults to take different disciplinary positions and build intellectual and conceptual bridges between them. In a very real sense, we can ‘make and do’ at increasingly higher and higher levels of complexity, and in a team setting, thus allowing for immensely powerful configurations of knowledge and methodological skill that advance science, technology, and our social and cultural innovations.
What relevance does interdisciplinary education hold in career choices, according to you? Can it create new career opportunities and widen the pool of options for today’s youth?
In summary, the 4th industrial revolution and globalisation is causing huge shifts in white-collar, graduate work in advanced capitalist countries – and this is spreading to all countries in which there is a class of ‘global graduates’ sharing a similar culture. In short, the shift to services (83% of the economy in the UK, and rising fast in India and China) means that education is much less tied to 20th century academic disciplines and more related to people-centred and team-centred work. This professional environment invariably requires working across institutional and sector boundaries and operating in diverse working cultures.
The list of interdisciplinary areas of white-collar work is long and growing: digital health, user experience, sustainability, bio-ethics, gaming, financial technology, legal AI, etc. Every one of these areas requires combining two or more traditional disciplines for a fuller understanding and several of these areas are moving so fast that it is difficult to set up university programmes in them before their own ground rules have moved on. So there are really two answers to your question:
Many jobs in services are ‘non-disciplinary’ rather than specifically interdisciplinary and require graduates with sophisticated attributes and skills which are not attached to any particular academic disciplines
There are a growing number of areas (see partial list above) where an interdisciplinary education is optimal.
And to answer your last point more specifically: yes, we are optimistic that the best students can create even more options for themselves with bespoke areas of interdisciplinary expertise which they fashion themselves. To take just one example: a recent Arts and Sciences BASc graduate combined engineering, sociology, economics and some law in her capstone dissertation to look at the feasibility of small-scale anaerobic digestion for heating student halls of residence. She is now being head-hunted by top engineering firms for her unique interdisciplinary skill set.
Do you think interdisciplinary education hinders or can hinder opportunities to specialise in a chosen field?
It depends what you mean by a ‘field’. We tend to think the knowledge categories we have today were written in stone at some golden age in the past, but of course this is not true! ‘Specialisms’ change all the time and if you believe (as we do) that we are living in a time of social acceleration and considerable technological and social upheaval, then what counts as a specialism is likely to change faster than before. Indeed, new specialisms can emerge from interdisciplinary coordination (e.g., when cognitive science and neuroscience were coordinated to form cognitive neuroscience).
There is an assumption (incorrect in our view) that only university departments define what a ‘specialism’ is. But consider the engineering/social science student mentioned above. She is highly specialised AND highly interdisciplinary. And one can multiply this sort of example many times. Another student at UCL is specializing in ‘global child mental health’, combining psychology, anthropology, geography and, indeed, some immunology.
Further, consider the examples of interdisciplinary specialist career options given above. Most of them would have been incomprehensible to us – even as concepts – as schoolkids 30 – 40 years ago. This is where, we think, many universities are lagging behind the private sector. Industry and business cannot afford to rest on outdated categories of knowledge, whereas for some universities it is easy to rest on well-established laurels and not think about changing curricula to reflect broader changes in the outside world. Of course, this is challenging work, and academics can’t be expected to do all the work. Students need to be provided with a framework that allows them to build bridges and produce new syntheses within a supportive interdisciplinary educational environment.
So, in short, it’s possible that interdisciplinarity can hinder opportunities in a field if you seek a career within the academy, because some of those fields have their internal reasons for not developing; but interdisciplinarity will not hinder opportunities if you seek a career outside academia. Of course, this depends in part on the design of the educational infrastructure, and we need to think carefully about this and evolve our educational infrastructures to further enhance interdisciplinary education. This is why we’re conducting research on the student experience.
Why do you think interdisciplinary education has suddenly gained prominence in today’s times, and what does that imply for the future of education?
Throughout the middle of the 20th century interdisciplinarity was much in vogue in the US at Harvard, at governmental education committees, and so on (see e.g., The Open Mind, by Jamie Cole). In this context, interdisciplinarity was thought to bring with it ‘creativity’, the virtue of a ‘complex mind set’ and even to mould the sort of citizen necessary for a democracy.
Some of this sort of thinking is very much still with us, but beyond ‘what is in vogue’ there is, perhaps, a deeper reason for the rising prominence of interdisciplinary education. We’re all concerned about our future. And while the future is inherently uncertain, we need to understand that levels of uncertainty range across a spectrum, depending on the types of events and outcomes we focus on. But there is reason to be hopeful about our future, and the rising prominence of interdisciplinary education may reflect this hope in part. Indeed, what we see as hope in this context may be a byproduct of a very natural process of cultural evolution. For example, many aspects of cultural evolution are subject to rapid change that is currently somewhat predictable, at least in terms of a number of specific trajectories. For example, in his book, Evolution and Complexity, Pettersson documented the following functions of culture as demonstrating accelerated change:
- communication speed and diversity
- data processing capabilities
- number of different materials used by people
- number of occupations involving special arts and technologies
- the maximum speed of transport by mechanical means
- the complexity of man-made objects and the degree of skill and knowledge required to produce them
At the same time, there is a good case to be made that the world, as an increasingly global and interconnected functional entity, is becoming increasingly complex, a system of an increasing number of increasingly speedy interactions: the acceleration of social change; the rates of migration of people; the impact of the Anthropocene and our understanding that we are intimately dependent on our natural environment; the internet/technology revolution etc. If we wish to educate each new generation to understand this world, what is our best bet? We may be irritated by the talk of ‘wicked’ or ‘complex, real-world’ problems which surround us but, for sure, simple-minded thinking will not help us deal with these problems. Some kind of interdisciplinarity seems the best chance for our growing population. There is great power in groups and teams. If more and more people receive a high quality interdisciplinary education, the chances are we can create increasingly functional teams that work together to solve increasingly complex problems that help us all survive, adapt, and flourish on planet Earth.
We are hopeful, but we think universities will need to think deeply about the challenge of interdisciplinary education over the next 5, 10, 20 years, and consider new forms of curricula and learning. We can certainly do it, but it’s not easy because established disciplines have their own protocols and traditions – many of which have very real value in maintaining rigour and intellectual standards – but to rely too much on the past, or to be too constrained by disciplinary boundaries defined in the past in such an era of change, would be a mistake.
Though interdisciplinary education is gaining prominence at the university and college level, the standard model of knowledge transfer and acquisition continues to be followed in schools, thus creating a gap between the two phases of education. How do you think this gap can be mended so as to make the transition smoother?
This is an immensely important question and one for which we need to formulate an answer by working collaboratively across levels of the education system. Some of the answers may come from the emerging field of the learning sciences, which hold great potential for breaking through the traditional educational model that separates school from university education. We have complementary views on this. Carl is willing to consider that a more structured, disciplinary learning may be optimal at secondary schools. He suspects that adolescent minds often need structure to help organise thought and too much ‘free form’ or uncertainty (which interdisciplinarity can foster) might be counter-productive at this stage of development. On the other hand, Carl admits that the English system of only 3 subjects from age 16-18 years seems absurdly narrow – both anti-intellectual and anti-productive, in terms of setting oneself up for future work – so the sweet spot is probably somewhere in the middle. However, both of believe that the learning sciences can play a more substantial role in structuring syllabi and curricula, which may lead naturally to more interdisciplinary work, rather than a curriculum based mostly on disciplines’ Indeed, with a direct focus on learning, which the learning sciences emphasises, we naturally transcend any specific subject area focus in school or university settings, but subjects and disciplines provide knowledge and methods that have an established ‘structure’ and ‘track record’ of application and this naturally helps to chunk learning experiences into manageable activities. Some of the key things that need to be added in a school setting to help prepare students for interdisciplinary education at University include cultivating dialogue, collaboration, and critical thinking skills in the context of projects or problems that involve novel combinations of these manageable learning chunks, such that students learn, even if indirectly, that knowledge and methods can be synthesised in ways that support new ways of learning and problem solving. These ‘acts of synthesis’ need not be perceived or presented in a way that is ‘outside the curriculum’, and there are many creative ways to do this in the classroom.
Carl likes the IB Diploma, but it is expensive to deliver and so many states back away from widespread implementation, leaving it somewhat of an elite sorting mechanism for school students. But the IB combination of disciplines and interdisciplinary work seems to be a good one. In England there is also the Extended Project Qualification (a kind of pre-A level, which involves an extended piece of research/essay) that encourages students to cross-boundaries and do independent research. This is a good attempt to broaden and make more sophisticated the narrow education received by 16-18 year olds in England. But not all schools offer it. In general, some combination of disciplinary and interdisciplinary study at school seems best from Carl’s perspective, and we both see the need for greater import of learning sciences to shape the logic and technique of these types of combined deliveries in the school setting.
Students mentioned “openness” as an important trait in order to do well in an interdisciplinary course. Do you think that openness is a trait needed in order to understand and absorb all that an interdisciplinary education offers, or does an interdisciplinary education inculcate that open-mindedness in students?
This was the question we ended our paper with! Which way does the causal arrow flow? I don’t think we know yet. We would like to believe that interdisciplinary education can foster open-mindedness in people. Indeed, it seems plausible when you compare it to, say, strict religious education. But compared to narrow disciplinary education? No real research has been done here yet to give an answer either way. We might content ourselves about not having an answer to this question by saying that even if interdisciplinary courses just attract bright, open-minded young people and offer them an inspiring place to study, we would be happy with that! But of course we would also like to know the answer to the other question…
Perspective-taking is an important factor in interdisciplinary education, as you’ve mentioned in your articles. Sometimes, however, different perspectives can clash with one another. How does one resolve that conflict in interdisciplinary education?
Sometimes maybe you can’t resolve them immediately, but that’s OK. The final year dissertation rubric on the Arts and Sciences BASc allows for ‘an excellently characterised dissensus’ between disciplines as one way to score high marks. In other words, recognition of differences can be an important part of learning different perspectives. Having said that, clarifying, analysing and presenting the differences can be the first step to some kind of synthesis or harmonization, further down the line.