The pursuit of interdisciplinarity – Tom J. Barry, Samson Tse, Janny Leung, Alice Wong
Most people probably agree that the world is facing a number of unprecedented crises. Although the outlook may not be as gloomy as some might believe, one thing is clear, something needs to change; we need new ways of understanding and tackling the challenges that face humanity. This realisation has led to a new focus on interdisciplinarity and the drive to synthesise methods, theories and findings from across diverse disciplines in order to provide novel insights for old and new problems (Nature, 2015). However, many of us still only pay lip service to the concept of interdisciplinarity, viewing the world through the narrow lens of our own discipline, unaware of the insights or tools from elsewhere that might complement the work that we do. If the potential of interdisciplinarity is to be realised, it must begin in the classroom, before these academic biases set in. How then do we prepare students to think in a way that we ourselves do not typically think?
In 2012, University College London (UCL) launched their Bachelors in Arts and Sciences (BASc) programme. This programme emphasised the importance of merging insights from across diverse and seemingly unrelated fields. As such, students were given the freedom to choose courses from across the Arts, Social Sciences and Sciences in order to construct their own, bespoke, degree.
Following in these footsteps, The University of Hong Kong has developed their own family of BASc programmes and in particular the BASc in Interdisciplinary Studies, housed within the Faculty of Social Sciences and in close collaboration with the Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Science. The coming academic year will represent the culmination of years of quiet planning and preparation as students begin the first year of BASc study.
Our expectation is that BASc students will be the future problem solvers and thought leaders of the world. As such, students begin their BASc journey by taking tailor-made courses that provide them with a foundational perspective in knowledge, critical thinking, methodology and leadership within a global context. Each core course is co-designed and co-taught by the faculties of Arts, Science, and Social Sciences. Teachers from different faculties will be present in each of the lectures in order to foster a collaborative and conversational atmosphere wherein students will gain insights from educators from each of the faculties within each lecture. Aside from these in-house BASc courses, students will then be free to choose courses from across the three participating faculties and beyond, with room to specialize in a complementary field through a second major. Interdisciplinarity is assured by encouraging students to select equally from two pathways: Cultures/Societies (e.g., Languages, Literature, Fine Arts, Sociology, Geography) and Physical World/Biological/Human sciences (e.g., Biological Sciences, Environmental Sciences, Cognitive Science, Social Development, Philosophy).
Although we are excited to offer students such unprecedented academic freedom, there are challenges to ensuring that students are not jacks of all trades but masters of none or that their area of study will be so diverse that it will lack meaning and focus. To overcome this concern, we will elevate problem-based learning to the programme level. Throughout the programme, we will host workshops with students to explore and define the global challenges that are most pertinent to their interests. We will then work alongside each student to craft a degree programme that enables them to better understand their chosen challenge and to consider novel solutions for it, whilst maintaining a spirit of interdisciplinarity. Throughout the life of the degree we will invite local non-governmental organisations and businesses that already work in these problem spaces to help students shape and refine their ideas. A Social Innovation internship programme will offer additional opportunities for students to integrate theory with practice in the real world. The pinnacle of their degree will then be an Interdisciplinary Capstone in which students will synthesise the knowledge they have gained over their degree in order to produce a societally meaningful output. Thus, the separate courses that make up each students’ degree will be given thematic coherence through their association with a broader, societally meaningful problem (Barton & Smith, 2000).
In order to realise the potential of interdisciplinarity, teachers have to acknowledge our own weaknesses in interdisciplinarity. If tomorrows’ leaders are to think differently about the world than we do, we must not impose upon them the constraints of the single, discrete majors that many of us have experienced. As teachers, we must show students that we are practicing what we preach and that we too see the importance of learning from our colleagues from other disciplines. We must create an environment in which students can see this example and then take ownership of their education and give it meaning by aligning it with their interests and values. If our students are to be the leaders of tomorrow, they must be the leaders of their own lives today.
- Barton, K. C., & Smith, L. A. (2000). Themes or motifs? Aiming for coherence through interdisciplinary outlines. Reading Teacher, 54(1), 54–63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20204877
- Nature. (2015). Editorial: Mind meld. Nature, 525(7569), 289–290. https://doi.org/10.1038/525289b