Enhancing critical thinking through interdisciplinary teaching and learning – Shuang Wang
Empowering students to be independent and critical thinkers is considered one of the most important educational goals of higher education (HERI, 2009; Pithers & Soden, 2000). Facing the global epidemic of inequality, of rising populism and extremisms, all students need to navigate the “post truth” era (Fukuyama, 2017) to make rational analysis and responsible judgment. In today’s world, developing the intellectual capability to critically evaluate controversial issues through multiple perspectives and methodologies becomes very important for a person in the long run.
Crititcal thinking needs intellectual and academic tools. It has been observed that an interdisciplinary approach of teaching and learning promotes critical thinking (Newell, 1992; Howlett, Ferreira & Blomfield, 2016). This article will use the approaches and practices adopted by Dr. Aihe Wang, Honorary Associate Professor from School of Chinese, to illustrate how interdisciplinary teaching and learning can be useful in developing students’ critical thinking in this “post truth” area. I have sought Dr. Wang’s input in constructing the main arguments in this article and also provided my own viewpoints and analysis as a colleague of Dr. Wang.
Dr. Aihe Wang brings interdisciplinary perspectives into her teaching of modern China history. She also encourages students from a variety of academic disciplines to participate in the building of knowledge. Her purpose of teaching aims to help students to open their minds, both to the see large pictures and to hear different voices, both preconditions for critical thinking.
As a scholar and educator, Dr. Aihe Wang strongly believes that interdisciplinary investigations with diverse perspectives and methodologies have a profound influence on how one interprets the information. In her curriculum design, Dr. Wang considers it necessary to prioritize enabling the students to open their minds and widen their horizon. Within a coherent framework, she introduces to students multiple disciplines – ranging from history, sociology, political and social sciences, to literature, film, and cultural studies. Students learn to distinguish various disciplinary methodologies involved in the study of modern China history. They master how each discipine asks a distinct research question, carrying out inquiries using its disciplinary methodology, and generating different kinds of material and knowledge.
In Dr. Wang’s interdisciplinary curriculum design, the learning outcome of “showing openness to different points of view” has two aspects here: that the course presents interdisciplinary investigations for each topic, of which students must make critical analysis; and that one must respect and listen to different voices in classroom, where students come from very different background (50% from Hong Kong, 45% from Mainland, 5% overseas) and diverse academic disciplines, and hold different beliefs and values. During each lecture, she uses the pedagogical practice of in-class discussion to facilitate students hearing and learning from each other’s disciplinary analysis, and engaging in more rational and mutually inspiring dialogues. She invites students coming from law, business and economics, science, humanities, and other majors to share different perspectives and their diverse sources of knowledge, followed by several other students’ comments. This cross-disciplinary discussion is associated with a stronger sense and motivation of participation in knowledge building. In this way of learning, students benefit by not only persuading the others to accept the stand that they take, but also learning to critically and rationally assess the other disciplinary analysis and learning to understand and respect differences.
On this basis, training students how to process interdisciplinary information is to make critical thinking a step-by-step practice. Analyzing a film, a novel, or an archival case, they learn how to critically assess diverse historical sources, and literary and multi-media representations. As an old Chinese saying goes, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” In every lecture, instead of memorizing the facts from diverse sources, students are required to engage with diverse materials and practise analytical thinking to analyze, critique, and evaluate cross-disciplinary historical sources and thus achieve an interdisciplinary understanding.
Students’ feedback and formative review of the interdisciplinary approach reflect its effectiveness in fostering students’ critical thinking. The following quotes were obtained from the SETL questionnaire of 2018-19 Semester 2:
[This course] provided many dimensions of good analysis on a very intricate topic. Beyond simply analysis and teaching, the instructor also trained student’s method of thinking.
The [course] materials combine documentaries, films, readings, music, paintings, and novels, which are quite inspiring and interesting. The assessment is also well designed and can help us easily reach the course outcome.
Meaningful interdisciplinary teaching and learning is increasingly important to achieve today’s educational goal of promoting critical thinking. It encourages students to reach beyond the constraints of a single discipline and fosters them to develop multiple perspectives and values. It also fosters communication and collaboration, ensuring students with multiple backgrounds speak and communicate. In fact, the interdisciplinary analysis skills are not merely necessary within the academic context. When applied to the real world, the analytical knife grows into students’ soft skills. As such, it is imperative to implement interdisciplinary pedagogical strategies in higher education to improve students’ critical thinking skills and enhance their intellectual and practical capabilities which will benefit students’ lifelong learning and future career.
I would like to express gratitude to the following colleagues and experts for their constructive comments: Dr. Aihe Wang, Dr. Tracy Zou, Dr. Cecilia Chan, and Prof. Stuart Perrin.
This work was supported by Teaching Development Grant of The University of Hong Kong (No.: 18/693).
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