Education: How and why should we train students and researchers in interdisciplinary ways?

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

Interdisciplinary work is not only about research: It now enjoys an increasingly prominent role in education and teaching. Integrating interdisciplinary aspects into teaching – or even offering a fully interdisciplinary programme – has the potential to bring several benefits to students. It also brings with it a set of challenges.

Advantages: Opening up future minds

The interviews mostly highlighted two aspects when considering the advantages of interdisciplinarity within an educational setting: The qualities of an interdisciplinary scholar as a lecturer, and the skills that students acquire by approaching topics in an interdisciplinary manner.

On the one hand, some interviewees, when reflecting on the role of interdisciplinary scholars in a classroom, highlighted their broader view and the ability to consider multiple perspectives as a potential advantage. As summarized by Fernando Santos: ‘I would say it is better for a student to have an interdisciplinary scholar […]. Because it is wider. And also to attract students. If you teach fifty people, they have different brains, they think differently. So if you only come with one line of thought, you may address one percent of the class, but if you have different perspectives, if you have more interdisciplinarity, then you get more people. Maybe that’s a good strategy, because the quality of your teaching will increase if the teaching staff is more interdisciplinary.’

This view is also shared by Claartje Rasterhoff: ‘I think that the nice thing about playing with these perspectives is that you can foster diversity in how people think and work, as well as in education. You actually learn a broad language and acquire a toolkit through which you also can be more flexible and free in how you collaborate and speak with others and, in an educational setting, in how you can help students.’

On the other hand, interdisciplinarity also offers direct benefits for students. For example, interdisciplinary education teaches not only various synergies across disciplines but also how to apply concepts from one discipline to another. The ability to make this sort of translation is a skill that students will carry with them for life. For example, when reflecting on history approached from an interdisciplinary perspective, Bob Pierik observed that ‘what I find interesting about history is that you can secretly absorb all kinds of other disciplines, if you just historicize them a bit. Using different disciplines is really something that I learned in interdisciplinary training and that I’m applying now as a historian. I think this is something that we can teach students more actively.’ In this process, students also learn how to cooperate with others – across boundaries. As suggested by Natali Helberger: ‘I think that it is important that you learn whom to ask, to learn what interdisciplinary perspectives can teach you and why it can be enriching, and then how to ask the right questions to the experts from the other disciplines. I think this is an important thing to teach.’

Learning and cooperating across boundaries help students to have a broad view but also create the possibility that they will become experts in particular topics. As summarized by Hanneke Hulst: ‘I think that in interdisciplinarity one has to have a kind of broad view, but also want to take that extra step to properly own it.’ She offers an example: ‘If you look at Alzheimer’s, what do you see on the MRI? What do you see under the microscope? What kind of behaviour do you see in those people? And how should you combine these observations to advance your insights about the disease? So I do hope students learn that you can’t just comprehend Alzheimer’s by reading a book. You really have to fully understand it if you want to be able to make connections in a clinical neuroscience setting.’

Challenges: Struggling with fragmentation

The integration of interdisciplinarity within education does not come, however, without its challenges or at least certain considerations – on the part of students and lecturers alike.

One of the main challenges involves the navigation of an interdisciplinary programme while being aware of disciplinary boundaries, as can be seen on different levels of education. In a bachelor’s programme, for example, it may take some time for students to realize the differences in the disciplines that their programme is integrating. Bob Pierik recalls: ‘It was only when I started writing a thesis that I became more aware of that. And I still have the feeling that I only really got a grip on this when I actually started my more traditional master’s here at the University of Amsterdam.’

In a doctoral programme, this type of challenge comes more to the fore, especially because PhD candidates also need to consider their future career in academia. For example, Pierik indicated that ‘I’m constantly terrified that someone will suddenly go through my dissertation with a red pen and say, “Hey, what happened here is not up to standards.” That it has no disciplinary basis whatsoever. This is not entirely true, of course, but that [feeling of] danger, that voice is always there.’ Conversely, the specialization that is often required of PhD candidates may also create barriers later on vis-à-vis their ability to move to interdisciplinary research. As Fernando Santos summarized the situation: ‘The system now is working so that the PhD candidate has to be so narrow so that this person would be the best person in that specific topic, but the person would not be able to move around in other fields. Now in the early years when this is happening, it’s not a big problem. But when those young scholars become professors, they will not be able to have broad views on their field. And then people who do have this broad view on their field die. So the science could be a bit fragmented.’

‘This artificial boundary between them starts in secondary school. You are either in the “gamma sciences,” “alpha sciences” or you are in the “beta sciences,” which is a completely artificial division.’

Lecturers interested in integrating interdisciplinarity into their teaching – or setting up interdisciplinary programmes – also face challenges. First and foremost one should consider that researchers often become ‘interdisciplinary’ as a consequence of their own interests and respective career paths, which may be difficult to translate into a teaching programme. As summarized by Hanneke Hulst: It’s not something you can learn from a book. It’s something that’s almost like a lifestyle. A way of working, which I have taught myself through the environment I am in and within which I have grown. I’ve been doing this job for 13 years now, but I would like to have people who can do this right away, from their training onwards. I think there might be something that needs to be done within training as well. To teach people to look beyond their own disciplines, their own box. Why should you do that? Because I think that enriches your image of the phenomenon you are studying.’

In this sense, it is often important to start with a question in mind, and let students figure out how to operate in an interdisciplinary manner via a learning-by-doing approach. As suggested by Hanneke Hulst: ‘If you are talking about education, I think there are many opportunities there for including interdisciplinary research. I don’t think you should start with the students and explain that we are training them to take a certain direction. You have to teach them that you can also hold a broad view, even though you are specializing in one dimension. In that case you actually get people possessed of a certain attitude which makes it easier to follow an interdisciplinary route. I also think you learn this mainly by doing, that is, you have to actually teach people via practical experience. By walking with researchers who work on interdisciplinary issues you can simply experience real things, and all that knowledge based in those different perspectives ultimately offers a better picture of reality, of the phenomenon you are trying to study.’

Best practices

Interviewees provided different tips or ideas about how to teach in an interdisciplinary manner. In some instances, combining scholars from different traditions was seen as an opportunity. As per Peter van der Sijde: ‘We have teachers from Science [in our programme and] we have teachers from Science Business and Innovation in it. Most of the time they form a tandem. They are a combination of lecturer, coach, that type of thing. What most teachers in innovation projects do is work with companies. They [the students] do an assignment for a company and that leads to more, or less, interdisciplinarity. You can bring in the science, but if you don’t tell them what to do with it, you forget the business side of it, it is of no value to them.’ A similar experience was shared by Natali Helberger: ‘So the way I’m approaching things is asking teachers from other disciplines to join me and to teach a particular topic, in order to show students what these other disciplines are and how they approach themes and what they teach us about our way of looking at the law. And I think that is super fruitful.’

Being clear with students about this combination – and acknowledging that in practice these combinations actually exist – is also important. As indicated by Peter van der Sijde: ‘I can tell you how Science Business and Innovation is organized because it combines the different disciplines and in a way it goes beyond a Science discipline. What I ask from my students is that they have a sound background in the discipline of science. We have both the science topics and the business innovation topics. What we wanted to do is to see both worlds. In real life they complement each other, but in teaching, most of the time they do not, because you choose one or the other. This artificial boundary between them starts in secondary school. You are either in the “gamma sciences,” “alpha sciences” or you are in the “beta sciences,” which is a completely artificial division, but that is how our education system is organized1. It is quite hard to bring these domains back together again. This is difficult for the students. […] From the outset, we look for students who are interested in both spheres. We sell interdisciplinarity from the beginning.’

The necessity of balancing the programme’s needs must also be considered. As Natali Helberger notes: ‘If you teach law, you should consider that on the one hand, you need to educate a new generation of lawyers who are able to work as judges, lawyers and in administration. So you need to teach them the solid basics of law, but you also need to teach them what they can learn from other disciplines, and then offer, for those truly interested, the possibility of engaging in greater depth with other disciplines.’

This balancing act can also be a factor in doctoral education, for example in a PhD project. As per Taco de Vries: ‘We have always made sure that you never put one person on the behavioural part and one person on the molecular part. But you have two people who do both. The first you have to train a little more in one discipline, and the other must have a little more training in the other field. But they have both experienced both aspects during the PhD.’

Note: These terms are used in the Dutch and Flemish context to distinguish between three clusters of academic disciplines. ‘Gamma’ includes all disciplines focusing on society, behavior and psychology; ‘Beta’ is the term for the exact sciences; ‘Alpha sciences’ refers to the humanities.



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Tips & Tricks

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Goal: When is interdisciplinarity necessary or of added value?

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