The Case for Interdisciplinary Education: A Student’s Perspective

by Edward Kim

Introduction

The word, “Interdisciplinary” has been circulating in education for years. Over time, “interdisciplinary collaborations” and “interdisciplinary learning spaces” have become more prevalent in schools and institutions across the country. Just this year, I have proposed a new interdisciplinary class called “Science and Society” to my district Curriculum Committee and got it approved for implementation. However, the significant increase in interdisciplinary learning over the years is hardly a surprise given its vast appeal.

To begin with, the very prospect of learning through a marriage of multiple disciplines is an inherently progressive standard. It is a clear break from the status quo of traditional disciplinary barriers that have been established in education systems for decades. As a result, interdisciplinarity is an innovative and exciting topic for many teachers, supervisors, and students. More recently, it has begun to move into frontline conversations about 21st century education reform and a fundamental structuring of pedagogy itself.

As a student interested in education policy, I too share the enthusiasm of others who are excited to see the rise of a new learning model that aims to boldly change the educational landscape. At the same time, the hype and novelty surrounding such a learning paradigm can often overshadow the reality behind what interdisciplinary education truly is and why it has become essential for schools across the nation. I would like to take this opportunity to share why interdisciplinary education is much deeper and more profound than it appears to be, and why it has become a fundamental necessity for the education system in America.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Currently, the world is seeing tremendous advancements in science and technology that will certainly permeate every aspect of society. With giant leaps being made in robotics, artificial intelligence, 5G connectivity, gene editing, virtual reality, robotics, and sustainable technology to name a few, the world is building upon the previous digital revolution (the “3rd” Industrial Revolution) in ways never seen before. Ever since the World Economic Forum introduced the realization of this new “Fourth Industrial Revolution” in 2015, people have started to grasp just how drastic these technological changes are going to be.1

The Job Market

An obvious result of these enormous changes in technology is a corresponding shift in the job market. The predicted impact of automation and artificial intelligence on jobs is staggering: a McKinsey study claims that 400 million workers across the world will be displaced by automation within the next 10 years2, while an Oxford University study reveals that around 47% of American jobs are at high risk of being taken over by computerization.3 While there is much debate on the extent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s impact on net job growth, it is indisputable that employees in the next few years will work in an environment increasingly dominated by automation. At this point, it is important to take a step back and consider what this all really means for workers and what kinds of skills they will need to bring to the workplace. Simply put, what are the things people can do that automation cannot already do better and more efficiently? Our ability to collect and analyze data, memorize, calculate, and perform repetitive physical tasks are not on that list and will be at high risk of being supplanted by automation. The reality is that certain job skills will not maintain the same value at a time of such rapid change in the world. Not being able to identify what skills may be placed at higher value as a result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR) could be disastrous for people and the economy.

This is where interdisciplinary education will make a difference. In the coming years, one of the most coveted and important job skills will be the ability to think about and approach problems by drawing from multiple disciplines. More specifically, this will come in the form of being able to understand modern technologies and scientific developments within societal, historical, economic, and moral contexts – perspectives that artificial intelligence would not be fully trusted with in the near future. People who have developed the capacity and willingness to approach the complex issues of today from an interdisciplinary standpoint will not only be assets to the workforce by being able to provide nuanced solutions covering both objective and subjective perspectives, but will also be most conscientious about how to deal with the FIR technologies that are dramatically impacting the job market.

Public Policy and Scientific Progress

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will bring about significant dilemmas for government at the federal and local levels. While technological progress is amazing and currently improving the quality of life for millions, it has limited value until society determines how it will advance civilization and be regulated. The current controversy surrounding the role of giant tech companies (Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google) in politics as well as partisan strife on issues such as abortion, artificial intelligence, climate change, cyber security, and healthcare are just the beginning. Novel technologies brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be radically more pervasive in the lives of people and much more multifaceted than the issues of today.

One prominent example is the bioethical issue of embryonic gene editing (the technology for which already has been used) which will have a tremendous impact on people’s relationship with biomedical technology. If granted the decision to choose on an individual basis whether gene editing is a viable option for their own children, people could potentially be given the ability to dictate the evolution of the human species by selecting certain characteristics. From what kind of moral or even policy-based foundation can society learn to adequately deal with such decisions? People in this nation are already extremely polarized and struggling to make significant strides in reconciliating opposing viewpoints over the single controversy of abortion, which is just the tip of the iceberg of dilemmas brought by increasing biotechnological capabilities. This is ignoring the host of moral, political, economic, and social quandaries that will result from the rise of artificial intelligence, human-machine interfaces, augmented reality, and much more. As of now, the world is woefully unprepared to deal with the inevitable technological dilemmas that will arise in the future. Future generations need to be able to relate perspectives from economics, ethics, behavioral psychology, and sociology to the current rise of advanced FIR technologies.

Outside FIR, the necessity for interdisciplinary thinking relating to modern issues is already being put into the spotlight due to the complex nature of the current pandemic. The immediate COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the need to approach a topic as complicated as a pandemic from scientific, economic, and social standpoints.

When the world’s current events are so obviously multifaceted and require not just dialogue among experts from different fields but also people able to integrate different disciplines, it is the responsibility of the education system to take notice and adapt appropriately. Education is the only wide-encompassing entity that can systematically influence young people, and is the key to empowering a new generation of people who will be prepared for such dramatic changes in the world.

Historical Precedent

Examining the drastic advancements in technology throughout time and their effects on society is extremely relevant in regards to the current Fourth Industrial Revolution and the importance of interdisciplinarity. The transformation of society in Europe and the United States from an agrarian to an industrial civilization (~1740-1860) undeniably had many positive effects such as the overall increase in quality of life and wealth for the average person. On the other hand, the failure to consider mechanization and industrialization from a holistic view of multiple perspectives presented unprecedented consequences such as soaring income inequality, vast overcrowding of cities, and loss of individuality and sense of agency for many workers. Perhaps the most disastrous overlooked consequence of industrialization was its devastating effect on the environment, as the government made practically no effort to mitigate the pollution produced by factories. Below is a report from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change showing the dramatic increase in greenhouse gas levels as a direct result of industrialization. The inability for society to prepare for the interdisciplinary nature of technological changes has had ramifications lasting to this day.

The necessity for taking a nuanced approach to the world’s problems did not begin with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and has always been prevalent throughout history.

The Essence of Interdisciplinary Learning

Many educators are familiar with interdisciplinarity as a newer approach to education. However, the idea of combining multiple disciplines dates back to pedagogy used in ancient Greece with the Trivium and Quadrivium, which represent early philosophical approaches to a “unified” form of liberal arts education. Although originating in ancient Greece, the Trivium and Quadrivium primarily came into use in the early Middle Ages, and are often associated with that era historically. While there has been much evidence over time indicating the benefits of interdisciplinarity,4, 5, 6, 7 what about this learning model in particular makes it go beyond simply recognizing the connections between concepts learned in two different classes? The word “Interdisciplinary” literally means “between or among disciplines.” But what does “between or among disciplines” really mean? Perhaps the true essence of learning between disciplines is much deeper and more profound than it immediately seems.

“Mindsets”

Every academic discipline, whether it be social studies, math, science, or language arts, has a certain knowledge base to go along with it. A foundation of facts and fundamental skills are necessary to advance a student’s learning in any subject. It would not make sense to do calculus without having a solid grounding in algebra, or to analyze historic events without first learning at least the basic factual details of those events. However, too often the disciplines are viewed as really just a set of facts, formulas, and “knowledge bases.” Interdisciplinarity takes the disciplines and elevates the meaning behind them to the point that such restricted viewpoints no longer become sustainable.

By its very nature, an interdisciplinary approach requires an understanding of the disciplines far above the informational level. Actually “combining” multiple disciplines in a profound and meaningful way is simply not feasible without first viewing them as different “mindsets” and not just “knowledge bases.” Through this approach, it is possible to put the social studies, natural sciences, and humanities into larger and more applied contexts that exist across and beyond the spheres of those respective fields. When multiple disciplines are not only juxtaposed but truly integrated, the differences and similarities of what they each offer and aim to accomplish through different ways of approaching issues become illuminated. One of the most prevalent issues in society is unnecessary conflict between people with differing perspectives who are unwilling to compromise or take each other’s viewpoints seriously. Interdisciplinarity eliminates the notion that one perspective is superior and fosters a healthy dialogue that seeks to value and combine multiple disciplines and ways of thinking. Thus, Interdisciplinary thinking is not simply defined by the ability to make obvious, surface-level connections across different fields.

Innovative Thinking

A unique quality to interdisciplinary learning is that in many ways it opposes thinking by analogy. Thinking by analogy builds off of what has already been long-established, which is often the case when studying or conducting research in a single discipline. Granted, there are obvious benefits to specialization in one subject area that can have tremendous applications in society and academia. Advancing knowledge in an area over time is intrinsically valuable, and interdisciplinarity does not aim to overhaul or “dethrone” the existing educational paradigm but rather gain more presence and importance in the learning process.

However, exclusively thinking by analogy is what prevents innovation and progress. Being stuck in the past when the world is being upturned by the Fourth Industrial Revolution is dangerous, and a learning model that can create new perspectives and ways of approaching nuanced issues of today is needed now more than ever. By exploring a scientific issue through a social studies lens or vice versa, students are pushed to think critically about what connections can be made that have never been identified before.

Interdisciplinary Learning in the Classroom

While the theory behind interdisciplinarity may sound attractive, actually implementing it in the classroom is a different story entirely. The key point is that there is no one way to effectively do this. Education policy itself is highly localized, and each district has its unique way of implementing and maintaining the standards outlined by the state. This is not too surprising considering the fact that different students make up the population in different areas. These are the personal thoughts of a student which were enhanced by various conversations over the past years with education professionals.

Distinct Class

A direct pathway to increase interdisciplinary education would be the implementation of a separate class (or classes) specifically designed to foster this thinking in students. In my own district, the Curriculum Committee approved a “Science and Society” elective class built on specific topics that were identified to be effective in helping students think from both a scientific and societal perspective: the origin of scientific thought, Darwinian evolution and society, and the scientific revolution and enlightenment. However, the resources that were used to develop the components and structure of this class were very specific to the school and district where it was being implemented.

A plausible approach to implement “interdisciplinary” classes in a more general sense is the idea of thematic classes. These would not be attached or affiliated with any one department in particular, but rather a shared responsibility between or among multiple departments. If this is the case, faculty who develop the curriculum and coordinate the logistics might have more leeway to cooperate in a joint-effort. Perhaps even a classroom with a two-teacher dynamic, each from a different discipline, might be fitting for a class of this type. This goes back to the idea of interdisciplinarity as a convergence of “mindsets,” not simply knowledge bases. The specific experiences and perspective that a social studies teacher brings to a classroom environment is significantly different from that of a science teacher, and even a simple dialogue or sharing of ideas between professionals from different disciplines in a classroom can be very powerful.

Furthermore, the NJ Student Learning Standards that were recently revised contain specific curricular areas that are great candidates for thematically oriented classes. These include a section in the social studies standards called “Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, Reformation, and Enlightenment,” the unit on biological evolution in the science standards, and a unit called “Influence of Engineering, Technology, and Science on Society and the Natural World” also from the science standards. These are areas that are not only explicitly part of the learning curriculum as mandated by the New Jersey Student Learning Standards, but also areas that can be targets of thematically organized classes that can very easily bring in multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Depth Over Breadth

An alternative approach to creating a distinct interdisciplinary class is something that might be more broadly implemented in traditional social studies and science classes. This is not necessarily about changing the curriculum content itself, but how this content is conveyed to students. By creating a larger emphasis on how curricular content relates to real contemporary issues and society at large, students will have a more efficient and holistic learning experience.

This broadly based approach addresses an aspect of education that needs improvement, which is how students personally view their learning. On too many occasions students are bombarded with the rapid pace and workload of classes, which leaves them with insufficient room to seriously consider the importance and realistic implications of what they are learning. Too often, the curriculum taught in the class is left in the classroom only and interpreted by students as merely a series of strategies and memory points to be utilized in assessments. Classrooms brimming with potential to explore concepts in a deep and substantive manner are sometimes forced to prioritize breadth over depth, out of fear that the required units might not all get covered. How will this prepare the next generations for the rapidly changing world and the slew of complex interdisciplinary issues that will force us to think outside of traditional education models? Students need an educational model that is inherently interdisciplinary and thematically based in multiple subject areas.

While having a knowledge base of facts and concepts is necessary in a social studies class, it is important for students to understand how this knowledge fits into a larger context that includes disciplines other than the social studies. This educational approach is not only a more accurate reflection of the real world that is not arbitrarily divided into separate disciplines, but also a far more efficient and engaging way of teaching. It goes back to the idea of interdisciplinarity as “mindsets.” Considering one discipline in the context of another is impossible unless the student is willing to go beyond the superficial and internalize what kind of thought process or approach a certain discipline brings to a nuanced dialogue. As such, an increased focus on the holistic applications of a discipline will naturally enhance students’ understanding of that discipline itself.

Conclusion

Interdisciplinary learning is no longer a privilege for schools but a necessity. Change in the education system is time-sensitive and needs to start happening now. In many ways, this change is already becoming evident. Only recently the initiative to implement curricula for climate change was added to the NJ Student Learning Standards, and there has been a clear move in the right direction from the NJ Department of Education to increase the prevalence of interdisciplinary learning. Little by little, cumulative changes will hopefully provide the next generations with increasingly innovative and advanced ways of thinking and learning about the world around them.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Mr. Hank Bitten at NJCSS for his tremendous support throughout this. I also want to thank Mr. Gold, Ms. d’Adolf, Dr. Mamman, and the wonderful educators and professionals back at Tenafly High School for being such a positive influence in my life.

References

1 – Written by Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means and How to Respond.” World Economic Forum, www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/.

2 – Manyika, James, et al. “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: What the Future of Work Will Mean for Jobs, Skills, and Wages.” McKinsey & Company, McKinsey & Company, 11 May 2019, http://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/jobs-lost-jobs-gained-what-the-future-of-work-will-mean-for-jobs-skills-and-wages#.

3 – Frey, Carl Benedikt, and Michael A. Osborne. “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?.” Technological forecasting and social change 114 (2017): 254-280

4 – Hall, Pippa, and Lynda Weaver. “Interdisciplinary education and teamwork: a long and winding road.” Medical education 35.9 (2001): 867-875

5 – Strauss, Ronald P., et al. “Cognitive and attitudinal impacts of a university AIDS course: interdisciplinary education as a public health intervention.” American Journal of Public Health 82.4 (1992): 569-572

6 – Jones, Casey. “Interdisciplinary approach-advantages, disadvantages, and the future benefits of interdisciplinary studies.” Essai 7.1 (2010): 26.

7 – Coops, Nicholas C., et al. “How an entry-level, interdisciplinary sustainability course revealed the benefits and challenges of a university-wide initiative for sustainability education.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (2015).

Diagram 1: https://www.mum-writes.com/2018/06/rex-facing-the-4th-industrial-revolution-with-holistic-learning/

Diagram 2: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/climatescience/greenhousegases/indu strialrevolution.html


Diagram 3: https://pt.slideshare.net/nacis_slides/cartographic-curiosity-promoting-interdisciplinary-thinkin g-in-general-education-through-maps

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