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KNOWLEDGE INTEGRATION REVOLUTION IN HIGHER EDUCATION: INTERDISCIPLINARITY

If you have been following my writings on higher education, you must by now be aware that there is a new revolution. The revolution is towards recognizing, popularizing and implementing the new knowledge cultures or systems: interdisciplinarity, crossdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and extradisciplinarity (i.e., nondisciplinarity). They can collectively be called the new knowledge cultures or systems for producing original thinkers for an uncertain world. Comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity is built into the fabric of interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary and extra-disciplinary learning, where students constantly analyze multiple, sometimes conflicting, perspectives of a challenge, problem or issues. The goal is effective problem-solving.

I have variously defined the new knowledge cultures or systems in a number of my writings. I have said that interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity have existed since the beginning of the 1970s. Extradisciplinarity is the knowledge way of society that is not compelled to bow to disciplines of knowledge, such as traditional society. Along the way crossdisciplinarity became part of the spectrum of new knowledge cultures or systems. Over time numerous knowledge workers have been preoccupied with knowledge production via these knowledge cultures or systems, and instructing students in them. A focus on ethics as a necessity integral to the new knowledge cultures or systems also prepares students to pursue justice in their lives, or when they are in employment. They are unlikely to be corrupt.

Thus, apart from the predominant disciplinary knowledge production, we have interdisciplinary knowledge production, crossdisciplinary knowledge production, transdisciplinary knowledge production and extra-disciplinary or nondisciplinary knowledge production.

What this means is that the alternative knowledge systems actually. So does alternative scholarship. Alternative scholarship emerging from interdisciplinarity, crossdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and extradisciplinarity is superior to simplistic scholarship, which has dominated our academia for centuries. Professionals from the new and different knowledge systems are better equipped and prepared to address our complex problems that disciplinary professionals can never meaningfully and effectively solve. Because of their complexity and interconnections to equally complex problems, such problems have been characterized as wicked problems.

The new knowledge production cultures or systems are still excluded from the structure and function of most university systems of the world.

A recent survey conducted by Professor Robert Bakibinga, formerly of York University College of Pennsylvania University in the USA revealed that most universities are unaware of the existence the new knowledge production cultures and systems.  The survey was conducted under the auspices of the Center for Critical Thinking and Alternative Analysis (CCTAA) located at Seeta, Greater Kampala, Uganda.

Only a few universities have allowed knowledge production diversification. At such universities, disciplinarity unfairly continues to predominate in the academic space structurally and functionally but interdisciplinarians, crossdisciplinarians, transdisciplinarians and extradisciplinarians have been allowed to coexist with disciplinarians. They are thus recognized and rewarded accordingly. There are students, lecturers, senior lecturers, associate professors in the alternative knowledge systems.

At most university campuses of the world, the predominant thinking among disciplinarians is the alternative knowledge systems, and the knowledge workers therein, are inferior to their counterparts in the disciplines. This, obviously, is due to the imposed ignorance that knowledge workers in the disciplines, and the academic administrators and managers, sufferer. They have erected policies.to ensure that the new knowledge systems and knowledge workers do not challenge their privileged status on university campuses.  

Disciplinary knowledge workers vigorously defend, advocate, clarify and articulate the general body of knowledge, practices, methodologies and scholarship in their disciplines. Likewise, however, interdisciplinary, crossdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and extradisciplinary knowledge workers are increasingly defending, advocating, clarifying and articulating their general body of knowledge, practices, scholarship and methodologies. They have developed policy guidelines for curriculum design and for teaching and learning. There are now academic policies for interdisciplinary curriculum design and for teaching and learning; crossdisciplinary curriculum design and for teaching and learning. transdisciplinary curriculum design and for teaching and learning; and extradisciplinary curriculum design and for teaching and learning. Students of interdisciplinarity, crossdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and extradisciplinarity are being instructed at all levels of higher education.  

In this article, I want to elucidate the guidelines for interdisciplinary teaching and learning that now exist. I will draw heavily from Sudderth’s 2022 article “A Guide for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning”.

Sudderth states that interdisciplinary teaching and learning is exactly what it sounds like: students combine learning from multiple disciplines to come up with new ways to think about challenges, issues and problems to solve them. All educators agree that engaging students and helping them to develop knowledge, insights, problem-solving skills, self-confidence, self-efficacy, and a passion for learning are common goals that educators bring to the classroom or lecture theatre.  Interdisciplinary instruction and exploration promote the realization of these objectives.

Repko (2009) asserts that interdisciplinary instruction fosters advances in cognitive ability. Educational researchers such as Kavaloski (1979), Newell (1990), Field et al. (1994), and Vess (2009) have identified a number of distinct educational benefits of interdisciplinary learning including gains in the ability to recognize biases, think critically, tolerate ambiguity and acknowledge and appreciate ethical concerns, which are often excluded from disciplinary science. These cognitive skills are crucial for high schools, and universities, looking to transform learning and prepare students for success after graduation in terms of employability.

Daniel Allen, cited by Sudderth (2022) , explained, “The economy (i.e., locally, nationally, regionally and globally) right now favours the weird; the new; and the out-of-the-box thinkers.” Interdisciplinary learning helps students learn creatively and apply knowledge across disciplines, which enhances their broadness of mind.

All of us who have been teachers or lecturers in school or university know that students always bring pre-existing ideas, biases, and prejudices into the classroom or lecture theatre. These do affect what students learn, how they learn, and how they apply what they leearn to their lives. Interdisciplinarity is an effective tool with which to challenge biases, not only in school or society but also in society. As Sudderth points out, interdisciplinarity asks students to consider multiple perspectives and, in doing so, trains students to think more critically about their own identities. It is for this reason that I have in some of my writings emphasized identity rather than interests in governance. Besides, interdisciplinarity as an approach to teaching and learning, engages students because it forces them to set aside preconceived notions, enabling them to: This approach engages students because it forces them to set aside preconceived notions, enabling them to learn more readily, get a deeper understanding of the material or challenge, problem or issue at hand and be open-minded to new ideas, concepts, challenges, problems and issues and ways of doing things. When they graduate, they will not be so arrogant as to imposes their choices and ideas on others but will prefer negotiating rather than bargaining in problem-solving. They will not impose projects or programmes on citizens, as is the case now in Uganda with regard to money economy or immunizing the girl child against cervical cancer. They will be humble, tolerant and patient actors in the economy. They will be more predisposed to listen to all views and ideas regarding a challenge, problem or issue rather than ignore the dissenting voices. They will not hunt down dissenters as if they are criminals.

Students who have been exposed to interdisciplinary teaching and learning are able to evaluate complex problems and to suggest solutions to them. As Sudderth has surmised, interdisciplinarity supports critical thinking by helping students to understand multiple viewpoints, evaluate conflicting perspectives and build structural knowledge.

Structural knowledge is a concept introduced by one of te world’s interdisciplinary education experts, Dr. Allen Repko in 2009. It refers to the level of knowledge students need to get to a point of forming their own ideas and solutions to a given problem. Using this concept, Repko expounded the stepwise advance to the required structural knowledge as follows:

  1. Declarative knowledge – the step when students learn students learn how and why things occur the way they do.
  2. Procedural knowledge – the step when students identify and understand the steps necessary to arrive at a solution to the complex problem,
  3. Structural knowledge – the step when sstudents can combine both declarative and procedural knowledge to solve complex problems.

Let me expound on how interdisciplinarity promotes meaningful and effective engaged learning. One thing is true.  The processes of interrogating bias, thinking critically, embracing ambiguity, and analyzing ethical concerns demand that require deep students are deeply engagement in the teaching-learning enterprise in an andragogical manner, whereby teacher and student are both teacher and student, if it is adult students at university. Andragogy, from which I have derived the word andragogical, was developed by Malcolm Knowles (1968) and it is the concept of study of how adults learn. In disciplinarity children are taught as if they are school children. The four principles of andragogy are: i) Adults need to know why they need to learn something; ii) Adults need to learn experimentally; iii) adults approach learning as problem-solving; and iv) Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value. Allowing students to incorporate their unique subject-area strengths in multiple projects. It is suitable for teaching and learning at university because i) It places learning in a broad context that’s relevant to students’ lives; ii) It placing learning in a broad context that’s relevant to students’ lives; and iii) It eencourageses students to make connections across wide areas of learning. All alternative knowledge systems can greatly benefit from andragogy.

Many interdisciplinary scholars have explained how best to teach using the interdisciplinary model or how to implement it in the classroom or lecture theatre. However, the stepwise approach to interdisciplinary teaching was first clarified and articulated by the Science Research Institute at Carleton College as follows:

1. Prestructural Planning

  • Plan and establish the topics students will examine
  • Develop an action plan—a set of notes and open-ended questions—that can help guide the classroom experience, whether in person or virtual

2. Introduce the methodology to students

  • Explain what interdisciplinary learning is, why it’s important, and how it’s different from discipline-based learning
  • Show students examples of how other students have used interdisciplinary learning to create amazing works

3. Take it to the classroom

  • Show students how to use insights from different disciplines by exploring questions with an interdisciplinary lens together
  • For a deep dive into how to apply an interdisciplinary lens, check out Allen Repko’s nine-step approach

4. Practice interdisciplinary thinking

  • Ask students to consider an issue using one discipline.
  • Ask them to use knowledge from a different discipline to inform their analysis and find a solution.
  • Ask students to perform this task alone, but it’s helpful to break up students into groups to promote collaboration and invite differing perspectives
  • Invite student groups can bring their work back to the entire class and refine their analysis.

 5. Provide feedback

  • Evaluate students using a detailed rubric
  • Aim to provide students with feedback on their ability to understand the structure and analytical framework of relevant disciplines, as well as how they use knowledge from those disciplines to create an integrated analysis

 6 Assessment

  • Teach students to self-evaluate regularly throughout each project, assignment, or analysis
  •  Ask students to rate themselves on their ability to:
    – Identify and apply multiple disciplines relevant to the issue or problem they’re studying
    -Synthesize insights from multiple disciplines.
    – Integrate ideas across disciplines.

When I was a lecturer at Makerere University in Uganda from 1991 to 2009, I did not like the strict disciplinary structure and function of the university. So, most of the time I applied the interdisciplinary approach to my Masters students in ecology, environmental science, environmental management, environmental planning and management as well as conservation biology to interest the students in these broad courses. I was surprised that most students enjoyed it and depicted high academic standards and achievement in examinations. I was particularly disappointed when after 6 years of work in the Human Rights and Peace Centre, Faculty of Law, under the Makerere University Interdisciplinary Teaching of Human Rights, Peace and Ethics Project, (ITHPEP) across the university curriculum, interesting faculty in interdisciplinarity, and producing an academic policy for Interdisciplinary Education and Research between 1997 and 2006,, the university authorities made interdisciplinary teaching and learning optional, re-entrenched disciplinarity with a more stringent academic policy for the 21st century.

In conclusion, interdisciplinary learning benefits students at all levels of learning:

  1. Challenges students to reach their full potential, and interdisciplinary learning provides students with an appropriate level of rigor.
  2. Interdisciplinary learning is inherently student-driven, with students making connections across disciplines and synthesizing perspectives to come up with their own original ideas.
  3. Empowers students to see their own voice and ideas reflected in their academic accomplishments.
  4. Interdisciplinary learning supports focus on real-world problems and invites expertise from many different sources—the perfect setup for students to build connections with community members and organizations.
  5. An interdisciplinary approach to high school prepares students for this future, equipping them with relevant experiences before they even graduate.
  6. Interdisciplinary learning empowers students as thinkers, collaborators, and problem-solvers.
  7. Interdisciplinary learning engages students, educators, and community partners around meaningful learning experiences. 

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Written by Oweyegha Afunaduula (2)

I am a retired lecturer of zoological and environmental sciences at Makerere University. I love writing and sharing information.

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On Gashumba’s dressing

THE KNOWLEDGE INTEGRATION REVOLUTION IN HIGHER EDUCATION: CROSSDISCIPLINARY TEACHING AND LEARNING