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Interdisciplinary Teaching

Since antiquity, humanity’s greatest minds have stretched the boundaries of science, art and innovation. Astronomer, philosopher and mathematician Hypatia was revered in ancient Greece. In China, Zhang Heng created the world’s first seismometer in c.130AD, drawing on his knowledge of engineering, meteorology, and mathematics. Renaissance greats like Leonardo da Vinci explored engineering, religion and nature’s forms with equal vigour.

In later periods, more women were granted access to the halls of learning and places of innovation. Actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr guided Howard Hughes to streamline his airplane designs, and set the groundwork for Wi-Fi technology. Katherine Johnson took her linguistic and mathematical skills to NASA to help bring American astronauts to the moon.

In modern times, questioning where lines are drawn and leaping past them has brought us closer to the smallest subatomic particles and stretched us ever further across the solar system. In research, we seek to ask questions never asked and answers never dreamed of. Our funding bids promise to uncover hidden truths about ourselves and the universe.

So why does this endeavour not permeate our curricula? Why does the REF promote the concept of interdisciplinary approaches but the TEF does not? Why do we silo our most daring pursuits away from our youngest and freshest minds?

This approach is nothing new. For most of our history firm boundaries between disciplines didn’t exist. It was only after Western Enlightenment and formalisation of university structures that we began to cordon off learning along clearly defined subject lines.

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary curricula offer our students a glimpse into the possible and the extraordinary. They can add richness, depth and inspiration straight to the heart of our degrees.

Where to start?

Interdisciplinary teaching is often framed within Grand Challenges that affect the globe, such as climate change, technological advancement and inequalities. Some subjects may be considered more “porous” than others, more open to collaboration with other disciplines, but often this is dependent on the direction laid out by leadership. It’s particularly tricky for early career teaching staff to roll out meaningful change towards interdisciplinarity without support from higher ups.

How can we convince colleagues take this seriously?

Ask for mentorship from those who have already forged interdisciplinary paths. A vocal supporter can help change the hearts and minds of those around you.

Securing small pots of money for trying out innovative approaches can get the ball rolling. Anything that is funded also looks more “official” to the wary. Check out BILT grants to get some ideas.

Shake the Education Strategy at them! The strategy promotes a research-rich and innovative curriculum. You can reference the Bristol Futures approach and its key themes of Sustainable Development, Global Citizenship and Innovation & Enterprise. Sections 3.2 and 3.3 of the strategy states that multi-disciplinary breath on these themes helps our students to develop transferable skills and attributes while complementing their discipline and enhancing their global focus. 

What does interdisciplinarity look like for me?

Easy first steps include inviting guest speakers who engage with your degree content, but from a different disciplinary perspective. The Alumni Team maintain a database of graduates who would be happy to work with you. To support this, you can attend cross-faculty events to network with others in a quest to find out where your interests overlap. You can also reach out to city partners from industry and community alike.

Instigate collaborative teaching interventions with colleagues in other disciplines by co-teaching on each other’s units. Taking a shared theme across Schools can enable creative approaches to team-taught programmes (see Caviglia-Harris & Hatley 2004).

You can encourage your first and second year students to take a Bristol Futures optional unit, if it fits with your degree programme structure.

Change the way you use your face-to-face teaching time. For example, ask students to query how they communicate their subject to those from other disciplines, so that they become more practiced in articulating research. You can set aside time for students to use frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to figure out who else might be affected by their subject and how.

You can adopt Nikitina’s (2006) model that notes three approaches to interdisciplinary teaching: contextualising, conceptualising and problem-centring. This can include Problem Based Learning that uses complex real-world scenarios and open ended problems to engage students in research practice. More involved curriculum design is a huge time commitment with many variables. For some best practice in how to tackle this, we suggest you read Klaassen’s 2018 paper that explores worked examples from Engineering. On communities of practice and building capacity, see Pharo et al. 2013.

Some current and future challenges alongside potential solutions are proposed in a 2015 report commissioned by the then HEA (now AdvanceHE). This long read covers the following areas (Lyall et al. 2015):

  • What are the pedagogies that are likely to provide distinctive opportunities for interdisciplinarity?
  • What are the key elements of effective practice that are identified within the literature?
  • For which of these is there a robust evidence base evaluating the effectiveness of interdisciplinarity?
  • What gaps exist in the existing literature in relation to: (a) types of disciplines that are not widely evaluated and for which there is a strong prima facie case that they are high impact; (b) the scope for the existing evidence bases to be further strengthened and developed?
  • What are the principles supporting interdisciplinarity in undergraduate and postgraduate taught education?

There are myriad ways to try something new and it’s up to you how to take it forward.

Typical barriers

University systems can hinder interdisciplinary approaches, but none of these barriers are insurmountable! Finance barriers including arrangements for buyout for any formal teaching across faculties. To address this, ensure you discuss arrangements and budget transfers in advance of teaching planning. Usually this takes place December to February before teaching resumes in the Autumn term. School managers are the first port of call to get these processes in order.

Another hurdle is how well terminology, frames of reference and workloads translate to other disciplines. If your interdisciplinary teaching involves assessment, you need to carefully consider how to support students to succeed. For example, a teaching collaboration that asks for a five-thousand-word essay would be better received by Arts rather than Science students. Different disciplines also interact with their students in more or less formal ways, so you’ll need to check the academic cultural norms encountered or decide how best to challenge them.

By pre-empting these problems in advance, you can put those in positions of influence at ease that the learning opportunity won’t ruffle feathers or risk any of our quality assurance processes.

Final thoughts

If our attempts to include the interdisciplinary are only ever on the periphery of our curriculum that sends a message to our students that we consider it non-essential to their learning. Integrating interdisciplinarity into the core of what we do, into our mandatory units and whole programme planning, means that students will take it seriously and see it as valued.

We can learn from our students and invite their ideas by curating space for the next big eureka moment. Like with the fable of Isaac Newton’s flash of eureka, an apple can only fall onto a great mind if a tree is planted in the first place.

References

Caviglia-Harris, J. L. & Hatley, J. 2004 “Interdisciplinary Teaching” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 5(4) pp. 395-403 https://doi.org/10.1108/14676370410561090

Klaassen, R. G. 2018 “Interdisciplinary education: a case study” European Journal of Engineering Education 43(6) pp. 842-859 https://doi.org/10.1080/03043797.2018.1442417

Lyall, C., Meagher, L., Bandola, J. & Kettle, A. 2015 “Interdisciplinary provision in higher education: current and future challenges” (HEA: York) https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/interdisciplinary-provision-higher-education-current-and-future-challenges

Nikitina, S. 2006 “Three strategies for interdisciplinary teaching: contextualizing, conceptualizing, and problem‐centring” Journal of Curriculum Studies 38(3) pp. 251-271 https://doi.org/10.1080/00220270500422632

Pharo, E., Davison, A., McGregor, H., Warr, K. & Brown, P. 2013 “Using communities of practice to enhance interdisciplinary teaching: lessons from four Australian institutions” Higher Education Research & Development 33(2) pp.341-354 https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2013.832168

Further reading

British Academy 2016 “Crossing Paths: Interdisciplinary institutions, careers, education and applications” (The British Academy: London) Link: https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/interdisciplinarity

Boston University’s “IMPACT: The Journal of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning” https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/3910

Holley, K.  2017 “Interdisciplinary Curriculum and Learning in Higher Education” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education https://oxfordre.com/education/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264093-e-138

Jacob, W. J. 2015 “Interdisciplinary trends in higher education” Palgrave Commun 1(15001) https://doi.org/10.1057/palcomms.2015.1

Miller, V. 2015 “Interdisciplinary curriculum reform in the changing university” Teaching in Higher Education Critical Perspectives 21(4: Curriculum as Contestation) pp.471-483 https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2016.1155549

PhD Thesis by Katrine Lindvig of the University of Copenhagen “Creating Interdisciplinarity within Monodisciplinary Structures” 2017 https://www.ind.ku.dk/begivenheder/2017/katrine-lindvig/PhD_thesis_Katrine_Lindvig.pdf#page=52

Ash Tierney

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