Sunday, July 4, 2010

Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Thinking

Yesterday I was reading The Disciplined Mind chapter in Howard Gardner's Five Minds for the Future.  Today I've turned to the chapter entitled The Synthesizing Mind.  This mind has the ability to integrate ideas from the different disciplines into a new whole, and then to communicate this to others.

In a world where knowledge is ever increasing it's important to be able to synthesize well, but it's also extremely difficult.  If even just being able to master one discipline can take up to 10 years, how long will it take to master different ones that encompass different perspectives?  In addition, when the amount of information is continuing to increase, how are we to know when we have achieved synthesis?

Gardner writes about different kinds of synthesis:  for example narratives that have been pieced together such as the Bible or textbooks; taxonomies such as the Dewey decimal system and the periodic table; complex concepts such as natural selection; theories such as Darwin's theory of evolution and so on. 

Gardner suggests that the most ambitious form of synthesis occurs in interdisciplinary work and he cautions us that true interdisciplinary work must involve the combination of at least two disciplines that are genuinely integrated rather than just put together.  The integration has to lead to understanding which could not have been achieved just through the study of one of the disciplines.  One example I could think of to illustrate this would be the work being done in the field of biotechnology.

In the various schools where I have worked around the world, I've often heard the term interdisciplinary used to describe activities students were involved in. For example a few years ago I worked in a school which had a "Leonardo Day".  During this day students came in dressed in Renaissance clothing, and did various activities such as painting, design, writing, maths,  history and so on all loosely connected with the achievements of Leonardo da Vinci.  This day was part of the MYP Homo Faber area of interaction (now called Human Ingenuity) which questions why and how we create and what the consequences are of this.  The IB describes the area of interaction in the following way:

This area of interaction allows students to explore in multiple ways the processes and products of human creativity, and to consider their impact on society and the mind.
Human ingenuity allow students to focus on the evolution, process and products of human creativity and their impact on life and society. Human ingenuity provides opportunities for students to appreciate and develop in themselves the human capacity to create, transform, enjoy and improve the quality of life.
Now I don't want to criticise what happened during this day, but I think I would like to ask some questions about whether this is really interdisciplinary thinking.  During the course of the day, the students went from class to class doing a variety of interesting and fun activities and I'm sure they did get a lot out of it.  However as this was a stand-alone day not really connected with what they were studying in their MYP subjects then there probably wasn't much real disciplinary thinking going on.  This makes me question how much interdisciplinary thinking was happening and how the disciplines were being productively linked in the students' minds.  At the heart of this, my real question would be:  what new understandings did the students come to, as a result of their experiences during Leonardo Day?
Further on in the chapter on The Synthesizing Mind, Gardner discusses multiperspectivalism.  Obviously our students are not at the stage where they have mastered the various disciplines they are studying, therefore perhaps our role as teachers should be to expose them to the perspectives of those who have mastered them.  Perhaps by having our students consider the perspectives of different experts they will be able to synthesise the different ways of thinking.  And today, there is easy access to these different perspectives using the internet to connect, communicate and collaborate.
Moving on from the MYP, the next programme encountered by our students in international schools is the IB Diploma.  As mentioned in a previous blog post, the 3 IB programmes move from being transdisciplinary, to interdisciplinary and finally to disciplinary.  One requirement for the IB Diploma is that students have to study the theory of knowledge (TOK).  The IB explains why this is one of its core requirements:

It offers students and their teachers the opportunity to:

  • reflect critically on diverse ways of knowing and on areas of knowledge
  • consider the role and nature of knowledge in their own culture, in the cultures of others and in the wider world.
In addition, it prompts students to:
  • be aware of themselves as thinkers, encouraging them to become more acquainted with the complexity of knowledge
  • recognize the need to act responsibly in an increasingly interconnected but uncertain world.
As a thoughtful and purposeful inquiry into different ways of knowing, and into different kinds of knowledge, TOK is composed almost entirely of questions. The most central of these is "How do we know?"
It is a stated aim of TOK that students should become aware of the interpretative nature of knowledge, including personal ideological biases, regardless of whether, ultimately, these biases are retained, revised or rejected.
TOK also has an important role to play in providing coherence for the student as it transcends and links academic subject areas, thus demonstrating the ways in which they can apply their knowledge with greater awareness and credibility.

Here, therefore, in the last two years of their schooling, the students are exposed to ways of thinking which should help them in developing a synthesizing mind.  I have never studied or taught TOK myself, however based on the discussions I had with my son when he was doing the IB Diploma I wish this had been something that had been offered to me when I was a student.
Photo Credit:  Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi:  Newton by Istvan

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