The Future of Education: Interdisciplinary

Part 3 of 3 – you can read the first part here and the second here


Beyond discrete disciplines: inter- and trans-disciplinary education

Many of the presenters during the conference talked about the flaw in the current education system being treating subjects as independent silos. Instead, it was argued, it needs to be recognised how different subjects, parts of humanity and meaning in general are interdependent, relational and systematic.

“As we are in a world of relations and interdependencies, where meaning is created in the relation between things, education should be accommodating this – education should be inter- or even transdisciplinary”

Nora Bateson, independent filmmaker, talked about how we are currently studying things out of context and that we need to put them back into it. Our current siloed way of thinking has fed into the education system and she strongly feels that we need to change this for the survival of our species. As we are in a world of relations and interdependencies, where meaning is created in the relation between things, education should be accommodating this – education should be inter- or even transdisciplinary.

These two terms were especially talked about in the session on transdisciplinary education that I attended. Interdisciplinary education revolves around different disciplines working together, something which is being done more and more. It was for example very much encouraged in my undergraduate degree, which was a liberal arts and sciences programme. However, transdisciplinary education revolves around the idea of crossing subject boundaries completely: not just having subject interact with each other but really merging them so that there are no separate subjects anymore. And as Barry Gills, professor at the University of Helsinki, argued, while interdisciplinary education is starting to become more common, transdisciplinary education hardly is yet.

“A ‘specialist’ way of looking at problems may itself become the issue, particularly when more ‘complex’ problems are addressed”

I enjoyed how Roberto Poli, Associate Professor at the University of Trento (Italy), addressed the misconception that ‘generalists are failed specialists’. He actually argued that a ‘specialist’ way of looking at problems may itself become the issue, particularly when more ‘complex’ problems are addressed.

All of this perfectly fit in with the viewpoints of Edgar Morin, philosopher and sociologist, and Peter Senge, system scientist, who were both keynote speakers on the last day of the conference. Senge talked about how our world is influenced and created by a system. This system approach assumes that all major challenges in the world are not caused by individual people, events or things but by the system, or as Bateson put it on the first day by the interdependencies or relations between people, events or things. Again, we live in an increasingly complex world so we need to be able to unite different knowledges to address these problems.

While I strongly agree with the need for inter- and even transdisciplinary thinking, I was missing a practical link. How do we go about changing the education system to this way of thinking? I think this is still a complex issue as education all around the world is restrained and shaped by different influences like government, assessment and job markets.


Thanks for reading my 3 posts about the Future Education Conference I attended in Rome. Feel free to message me with any questions or comments you might have!


4 thoughts on “The Future of Education: Interdisciplinary

  1. So interesting! On your last point—the practicalities—I wonder if we need to think about trans or multidisciplinary education as something requiring collaboration between educators. Rather than expecting educators to have ever-increasing varieties of knowledges, we should create more opportunities for educators across disciplines to share expertise and collaborate in creating multidisplinary learning experiences. E.g. in the HE setting, you could have a module on climate change being co-taught by a geologist, a political scientist, and an environmental historian. The quetion then becomes how to create and encourage this collaboration—maybe placing value on collaborative cross-disciplinary research and teaching within the tenure process. or even just directing research funding to multi-disciplinary projects that include a collaborative teaching component. Then, can we do this in other educational stages? How could cross-disciplinary, collaborative teaching be encouraged in the secondary level (esp. given the the traditionally very siloed demands from standardized testing)?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes I definitely agree, and I love that HE example! But yes how you do that in earlier education stages is a good question. The speakers that talked about systemic thinking start from the notion that as the world works through relations and as a system the siloed way of teaching is problematic to start with. But again it is those current siloed demands that does not make this easy to change of course and my questions around practicality come in as well. However, I have seen some primary/secondary level projects where students, for example, work on a project like building a house or make a video of the life of a butterfly and have to draw on many different subjects/skills to complete these.
      I think your point on the demand for teachers to have ever-increasing varieties of knowledges that could result from this way of thinking is interesting, but I guess that would go together in a debate about what content and skills we need to learn in the future anyway with the rise of easily accessible on-demand information. Obviously there is no right answer here, but I would think the interdisciplinary (rather than transdisciplinary) is the most realistic to achieve in the current education system (and where your example fits in as well) – balancing subject expertise and collaboration between subjects.


  2. You write “While I strongly agree with the need for inter- and even transdisciplinary thinking,”
    The comment from Danielle is touching my question already a bit.
    Do you think inter- and transdisciplinary thinking can be used at all educational levels or better on higher levels ?


    1. See my comment to Danielle above. In summary, yes I think interdisciplinary thinking in the current education system seems more relevant and realistic in HE (though there have been some interesting projects on primary and secondary levels – though they will have started off with siloed subjects). The entire point in systemic thinking, however, is that it should be focused on the relations and systems from early years onward (which I am not sure is practically possible right now) as that is the way the world is structured.


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