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Lucubrate Magazine, February 11th, 2023

Making meaningful connections across disciplines and actively engaging in authentic, real-life problem solving should be at the heart of education.

There are many higher education institutions that claim their curriculum and teaching-learning approach is informed by interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approaches. On paper they may be, but in practice it is less apparent.

Interdisciplinary or Multidisciplinary Approach

I am not advocating the disposing of academic disciplines. There is knowledge, vocabulary and modes of inquiry specific to a discipline that students must become conversant in. We need to know our doctors, teachers, accountants, engineers have disciplinary depth and are as well prepared as they can be for the profession they intend to enter.

Very simply, an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach involves drawing on more than one discipline to come up with new ways of looking at and understanding an issue or problem and reaching a solution.

The major difference between the two is that the multidisciplinary approach sees professionals working in parallel, each attending to their particular tasks with someone taking ‘charge’ and acting as the conduit for communication across all disciplines. Whereas the interdisciplinary approach involves a team who work collaboratively on an issue/project, without anyone assuming hierarchy and who regularly communicate with each other to arrive at solutions.

Both approaches are now widely used in health care where comprehensive patient care involves a team of experts with different technical knowledge, skills and perspectives working together to address patient issues. The team might include various medical specialists as well as physiotherapists, nurses, social workers, dieticians and psychologists.

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A Genuine Interdisciplinary Teaching-learning Approach

I recently worked with a higher education institution keen to develop new undergraduate degree programs. The College is located in a developing country context that has a fertile agricultural economy. The population also unfortunately encounters several major health problems.

The scenario presented an outstanding  opportunity for a genuine interdisciplinary teaching-learning approach to be adopted.

For the academics, it involved an interdisciplinary team approach to designing the curriculum that brought together experts in agricultural sciences along with business, education, health and nutrition professionals. (The University does not have an Engineering Faculty, but there were certainly potential opportunities for professionals from such a Faculty to also become involved). It was an excellent chance for academics from different fields to collaborate, learn, experience and appreciate different perspectives.

For many it was the first time they had actually collaborated across faculties or had even met some of their fellow colleagues. An exciting and unforeseen by product of these meetings and discussions was ideas for future collaborative interdisciplinary research.

An Interdisciplinary Approach for Students

Specifically for the students, taking an interdisciplinary approach meant reassessing the kind of thinking they required of students, the types of learning tasks and assessments set and the sort of criteria to be applied to appraising student work. The curriculum focus shifted to one that challenged students to expand their conceptual and intellectual understanding by providing real-world problems for students to discuss, critically analyse, research and solve.

It is important in today’s globally interdependent society for learning to be meaningful, holistic and connected to the reality of everyday life circumstances.

These sort of collaborative exercises do bring a variety of challenges, but it is stimulating to be given the chance to contribute to designing and implementing curriculum using an interdisciplinary approach. The rewards are worth it.

Lucubrate Magazine February 2023

The illustration on the top of the article: Lucubrate Magazine

Interdisciplinary Teaching-learning Approach (Photo: Adobe Stock)

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Nita Temmerman
Professor Nita Temmerman

Nita Temmerman (PhD; MEd (Hons); BEd; BMus; ATCL; MACE) has held senior University positions in Australia including Pro Vice Chancellor Academic Quality, Pro Vice Chancellor International Partnerships and Executive Dean. She is an independent higher education consultant and invited professor to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, SE Asia and the Middle East and Academic Board Chair for private higher education institutions. Nita is also an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic & Vocational Qualifications (HKCAAVQ), and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations & Customized Knowledge Solutions (Dubai). Projects draw on expertise in organisational strategic planning, quality assurance, academic accreditation and reaccreditation, higher education policy development and review, teacher education and curriculum design and evaluation. Nita has published 14 books, over 70 scholarly papers, conducted numerous presentations in SE Asia, Middle East, Pacific, UK and USA and remains an active contributor to several education publications.

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