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Embracing Lifelong Learning to Stay Ahead

By 2028, almost 21% of Singapore’s full-time workforce will become redundant and have their jobs displaced by automation[1]. The Republic has the largest gap in average skill levels in the region, which is the mismatch between skills and jobs created. What this means is that an emphasis on the importance of self-improvement and upskilling is needed. This can be achieved by encouraging everyone to be lifelong learners, where they continuously pick up new knowledge and sharpen their expertise in order to stay competitive in the job market.

Singapore has been steadily developing a culture of lifelong learning, through national initiatives like SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), which provides Singaporeans with opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout life, regardless of their starting points.

Other initiatives include the restructuring of the Institute For Adult Learning (IAL) as an autonomous institute within the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)[2]. This move helps both entities explore meaningful collaboration opportunities, by bringing together their know-how and experiences in providing learning opportunities for adults, and improves the design of Singapore’s training infrastructure and policies to better support lifelong learning.

When it comes to conversations surrounding lifelong learning, buzzwords such as interdisciplinary learning and multidisciplinary learning can often be heard. But what do these two concepts mean exactly, and how are they different from each other?

Breaking Down the Definitions

In general, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary learning both require the combination of multiple knowledge domains, to enhance the scope and depth of learning. However, when it comes to application, they differ widely. 

Multidisciplinary learning approaches draw on knowledge from different disciplines, but stay within each discipline’s boundaries, as the integration of these disciplines is not considered important. Simply speaking, it is the study of a topic from the perspective of more than one discipline, and learning to solve a problem using other different disciplinary approaches. For example, when we talk about reducing pollution through carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from vehicles, we can look at separate solutions, such as developing cleaner fuel chemistry, or improving engine efficiency.

Interdisciplinary learning, on the other hand, calls for the development of an awareness and understanding of the interconnectedness across different subjects and disciplines. It encompasses integrating and synthesising knowledge from these subjects and disciplines into a coordinated and coherent whole, to better create solutions. For example, the development of dialysis machines would require expertise in engineering, alongside a deep knowledge of the human body and organ function.

Dissecting the Mindsets

When we are tackling a problem that is multidimensional, we need to be able to deal with the problem in a holistic manner, to be able to comprehensively cover more ground. However, the issue with multidisciplinary learning mindsets is that when it comes to problem solving, each discipline tries to provide a solution strictly from its own viewpoint, without taking the perspectives of other disciplines into account. It makes it challenging to engage in discussions or to get the right feedback through constructive criticism and evaluation.

Learners with an interdisciplinary learning mindset appreciate that problems can be complex, and acknowledge that they alone may not be able to solve the problem. It is also important for learners to understand that there will be key concerns of others expressed and solutions advised that will make their part more difficult. This is how the whole problem-solving scenario then evolves, and how a new body of knowledge is potentially created, for us to make a real difference in society.

This is succinctly summed up by Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), who employs the analogy of medicine and the human body to raise a point about problem solving and making a real difference to society. In the podcast Learning for Life EP1.1, he equates society to a human body, a complex organism, and raises the point about how often people actually visit hospitals with a problem that stands alone. What one does to one part will ultimately affect other parts. Thinking of society in this manner thus requires us to think about interoperability of solutions, and the impact across other different parts of society.

Learning the Different Schools of Thought

Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary learning systems differ in terms of curriculum as well, such as how educators plan the lessons, and how students interact and learn. In multidisciplinary learning systems, the educator presents the topics, which they tend to organise around a theme, and students from different disciplines work out the problems out of their own disciplines[3]

For interdisciplinary learning systems, educators centre the curriculum around common learning. They compile the common learnings embedded in the disciplines to emphasise interdisciplinary skills and theories. They facilitate discussions between different disciplinary views. The disciplines remain identifiable, but assume less importance individually as compared to a multidisciplinary approach[3]. Students also typically form interdisciplinary groups to problem solve, helping them to learn beyond the academic content in the process, nurturing skills related to collaboration, research, writing, alongside design and construction.

At the end of the day, whichever the learning system, Associate Professor Allan Chia, Dean, SUSS School of Business, reiterates that education is ultimately meant to be transformative, to allow individuals to improve and upskill themselves to be more relevant and useful to contribute to society. Lifelong learning, be it through interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary learning, ultimately means expanding one’s horizons and becoming an active participant in one’s personal and professional life. As the future will only bring more ideas, innovations and technologies, it is of paramount importance that we embrace lifelong learning to stay ahead of the curve and remain competitive on the job market.

Speaking on Singapore’s efforts to create a lifelong learning environment, the Associate Professor also touches on how everyone has a role to play. “The government has provided the impetus to drive lifelong learning forward but I think it eventually boils down to a personal choice. I do think that employers play a big role in fostering a lifelong learning culture among its employees. They are in the frontline of all the disruptions taking place and they need to take the lead to advise and support their employees to reskill and upgrade themselves."

This article is an adaptation of the podcast Learning For Life #1.1. The podcast features Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, (President, SUSS) and Dr Jimmy Wong (Senior Lecturer in Marketing, SUSS School of Business), who discuss the future of interdisciplinary learning and how it impacts educators and students. Listen to the podcast here.

[1] CISCO (SEPT 2018) Technology and the future of ASEAN jobs

[2] SUSS SUSS Poised To Boost Quality Of Lifelong And Adult Learning, With IAL Integration

[3] Drake, Susan M, and Rebecca C. Burns Meeting Standards Through Integrated Curriculum


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