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Why is Interdisciplinary Learning Important?

“School systems should base their curriculum not on the idea of separate subjects, but on the much more fertile idea of disciplines... which makes possible a fluid and dynamic curriculum that is interdisciplinary.” - Ken Robinson

Interdisciplinary Learning.

This buzzword in education gets thrown around quite a lot these days. But what does 'interdisciplinary' study really mean? And why is it so important?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “Interdisciplinary” as: “Involving two or more academic, scientific, or artistic disciplines.”

When considering interdisciplinary learning (and teaching), we work across knowledge boundaries and create new knowledge from various sources.

Interdisciplinary study is the practice whereby students are encouraged to integrate and compare the approaches, insights and methods between two or more disciplines as part of the curriculum.

What is interdisciplinary study?

Interdisciplinary study helps students learn by connecting ideas and concepts across different disciplines. Students can apply the knowledge gained in one domain to a different one as a way to deepen their learning experience.

The most effective approach to interdisciplinary study enables students to build their pathway by choosing courses that make sense to them. For example, finding a theme that crosses disciplinary boundaries in literature, art and history, or science and mathematics is not difficult. Studying topics thematically is one way to bring ideas together, resulting in more meaningful learning. By allowing students to choose their preferred subjects, their understanding is deepened when they reflect on the connections between what they are learning in different disciplines.

One of the biggest barriers to achieving true interdisciplinary study in education environments is the necessity for collaboration among educators.   Although difficult to achieve, it’s not impossible. Interdisciplinary teaching and learning are maximised when professionals from different disciplines collaborate to serve a common purpose and help students connect with other disciplines or subject areas. Such interactions support a model allowing for new knowledge construction and a deeper understanding of ideas than through reading a single specialisation.

What is so beneficial about this type of study?

Making connections between different concepts is essential in interdisciplinary study. Here are some additional benefits:

  • Students are highly motivated as they have a vested interest in pursuing topics that are interesting to them. As a result, the content is often rooted in life experiences, yielding an authentic purpose for the learning and connecting it to a real-world context. Consequently, the learning becomes meaningful and purposeful, resulting in deeper learning experiences that remain with the student for a lifetime.
  • Students gain more in-depth knowledge when they learn about topics from various perspectives.
  • Useful skills such as critical thinking, synthesis and research are developed as students explore disciplinary boundaries to consider other viewpoints and compare concepts across subject areas.
  • Students can consolidate learning by integrating ideas from many perspectives and considering alternative ways of building knowledge.
  • Interdisciplinary knowledge and application of different disciplines can generate greater creativity.
  • Worthwhile research topics can fill in the ‘gaps’ between traditional disciplines.

Interdisciplinary study allows for the synthesis of ideas from many disciplines

Interdisciplinary study addresses students’ differences and helps develop important, transferable skills. These skills, such as critical thinking, communication and analysis are essential and develop continually at all stages of life. Educational systems serve students best if they enable and encourage students to build their interdisciplinary pathways. This approach can foster a love of learning, ignite a spark of enthusiasm and address learning differences for students.

The idea of interdisciplinary studies reflects a growing belief that standard curricula have become too siloed along disciplinary lines and that in an increasingly complex world, students need help understanding the connections between diverse forms of knowledge and inquiry.

This movement in higher education goes beyond the general education curriculum found at almost every institution of higher learning around the globe, in which students take several disconnected courses in different disciplines outside their major. In a more integrated model of interdisciplinary studies, the knowledge and modes of inquiry from multiple disciplines are brought together within the context of single courses or entire programmes of study.

At the Singapore University of Social Science (SUSS), lecturers help students make the connections between these disciplines to enrich and improve learning. This model is both new and old. It is new in that society is witnessing a recent surge of interest and enthusiasm for more holistic and integrative approaches in higher education. At the same time, it is old in that it is rooted in the longstanding tradition of a liberal education that dates back to Socrates and Aristotle. Today it goes by many names, such as “STEAM” (with an “A” for “arts” added to the standard STEM acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), “transdisciplinary,” or even “SciArt.”

I am a Science Major… Why Study Writing?

A science major may ask, “why do I need to know about ethics, history, writing and design? Shouldn’t I focus on the classes that will prepare me to get a job after graduation and to succeed at that job?”

In reality, a holistic education integrating the arts, humanities, sciences and engineering will make students more attractive candidates for employers and more successful in their future careers.

Many of the learning outcomes associated with interdisciplinary studies—including improved written and oral communication skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision-making, critical thinking and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings—are the same skills employers require all students to possess upon graduation. Recent surveys reveal that employers see talent as more than deep technical expertise or familiarity with a particular technology.

An online survey conducted by Hart Research Associates found that most employers say that both field-specific knowledge and a broad range of other knowledge and skills are essential for recent university graduates to achieve long-term career success. Few employers maintain that acquiring the knowledge and skills needed primarily for a specific field or position is the best path to long-term success. Employers reported that when hiring, they place the greatest value on demonstrated proficiency in skills and knowledge that cut across all university majors. The skills they rated most important include the ability to communicate clearly, both in writing and orally, teamwork, ethical decision-making, critical thinking and applying knowledge in complex, multidimensional, and multidisciplinary settings. According to employers, this combination of cross-cutting skills is more critical to an individual’s success at a company than the major she or he pursued while in university.

Career Applicability and Flexibility

Want to become a qualified job candidate for as many professional opportunities as possible? Then an interdisciplinary education may be the way to go.

Another study by The Burning Glass Institute, a job market analysis company, found similar results as the Hart Research. Its analysis of  25 million job postings set out to understand “the essential or baseline skills that employers are demanding across a wide range of jobs.”  It revealed that oral communication, writing, customer service, organisational skills, and problem-solving were among the most prized skills across various occupations and career types. Even among highly technical fields, a quarter to a third of the required skills deemed essential by employers falls within the baseline skills. The results suggest that higher education should equip all students with the baseline skills needed for success in various occupations.

This conclusion is more important because students who major in the traditional liberal arts disciplines—in STEM as well as arts, humanities and social sciences—often end up in professions that are not directly aligned with their major, just as specific occupations attract students with multiple kinds of academic backgrounds. This raises questions about how well a university curriculum focused on a specific, disciplinary major will serve students after graduation.

Graduates should be prepared not only to take a job with no direct relation to their university major but also to change jobs and careers often throughout their working years, particularly in the years just after graduation. Therefore, they will be well served by skills and competencies that are transferrable from one job to another and develop the ability to be adaptable, lifelong learners who can pick up the new knowledge they may need for success and fulfilment in each new job.

A Gap in Job Candidates

Why does all this matter? Because employers also report that many recent graduates have yet to achieve the types of learning outcomes that they view as important. Employers want to hire people who can apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings, think critically and communicate clearly and effectively in writing and speaking. The lack of emphasis on integrated teaching practices may serve students poorly in the job market.

Forward-looking universities are listening and responding. SUSS is focused on interdisciplinary learning outcomes that include writing and oral communication skills, critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, ethical reasoning skills, knowledge of global world cultures and integrating learning across disciplines.  Schools like SUSS recognise that the idea that disciplinary specialisation and technical depth are the only essential prerequisites for employment is false. Today’s economy seeks well-rounded, critical thinkers.

Heading in the Right Direction

The good news is that we see higher education moving in this direction. Like SUSS, many institutes of higher learning are taking innovative approaches that better integrate knowledge from the arts, humanities, sciences, engineering, and medicine. Many of these courses and programmes are framed around the global and local challenges that many students are enthusiastic about addressing, such as climate change, ageing and poverty.

If this movement toward greater integration in higher education continues, perhaps in the future, students will no longer major in a specific science, engineering, art or humanities discipline but instead focus their studies on addressing the many real-world challenges they are likely to encounter in the context of their careers, lives and civic engagement.


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