Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thinking in the Seams: Engaging Interdisciplinary Thinking

It was ingenious. So much so that some listeners wished to be high school history teachers so they could “borrow” the analogy. Even though my first listen was is in a semi-awake state, I understood enough to be informed, entertained, and left wanting to hear it all again. What caught my ear and interest was an NPR interview with Marc Lynch, author of an article that explained world politics through the analogy of a rappers’ feud. The clarity the analogy brought to the more complex issue of foreign policy and “rogue” nations amazed me. It truly was ingenious.

Such analogies are products of what I call “thinking in the seams,” thinking that merges ideas from different disciplines to generate something novel and beneficial. Researchers use varying terms for such thinking—cross-disciplinary thinking, multi-disciplinary thinking, and interdisciplinary thinking—and define it as the use of frameworks from one discipline as “points of departure for discovering or confirming similar structures and relations in other disciplines.”1 It stitches together perspectives or modes of inquiry from two or more disciplines to explore ideas. It is thinking “in the seams.”

Creativity, innovation, and deepened understanding can result from interdisciplinary thinking. Despite these potential benefits, schools rarely cultivate the “mental dexterity” required for thinking in the seams.2

Many education systems emphasize departmentalization, especially as students progress through the grade levels. Each subject is taught by an “expert” who specializes in the discipline and who rarely, if ever, designs instruction that engages students in interdisciplinary thinking. Specialization, while valuable in some contexts, prevents interdisciplinary thinking.

However, specialization should not be confused with deep understanding of a discipline. In fact, deep disciplinary understanding can foster interdisciplinary thinking if the understanding includes the recognition of patterns within the discipline. Patterns play a critical role in enabling interdisciplinary thinking.

According to researchers, interdisciplinary thinking often follows a sequence of mental actions: relationships between ideas within a discipline are recognized→the relationships are recognized as forming pattern(s)→the pattern(s) are decontextualized/generalized→examples of the same pattern(s) are recognized in other disciplines→ideas from one discipline “overlay” with another, generating new ideas.3

How can we foster such thinking?

First, teach the disciplines through patterns. By using patterns as entry-points to material, teachers can connect students’ prior experiences to new content. This helps students construct deeper understanding of the content and alerts them to associations between major ideas.

Second, teach to understanding. Moving from simple recall to understanding is moving from being able to answer a trivia question to possessing “usable knowledge”—knowledge that “is connected and organized around important concepts” and “supports transfer (to other contexts) rather than only the ability to remember.”4 Engaging students in connecting new content and patterns fosters understanding.

Third, challenge students to recognize other patterns within new content. Challenge students to explore how else the major ideas may be organized, identify the new patterns that result, and to generalize those patterns so cross-disciplinary possibilities can be explored. (This is a process of thinking that will need to be delineated and modeled for students.)

Fourth, engage in interdisciplinary thinking with colleagues. Explore patterns within the material you will be teaching and see if any possesses potential for engaging students in interdisciplinary thinking. Work collaboratively to design instruction in which patterns from both disciplines can be used to encourage interdisciplinary thinking.

Finally, encourage interdisciplinary thinking by designing time for thinking “in the seams.” Designate a period of time (daily? weekly?) in which students reexamine material to identify potential overlays of two or more disciplines. One relatively easy way to engage such thinking is to identify analogies, explaining Concept A from Discipline A by referencing Concept B from Discipline B. As students develop and express such analogies, they reprocess the content from both disciplines, deepening their understanding of both. By structuring time for it, students recognize that you value such thinking. That understanding may motivate additional interdisciplinary thinking throughout the school day.

Several teachers have expanded their own capacity for interdisciplinary thinking and for designing instruction that fosters thinking “in the seams” through instructional design models, such as the Architecture of Learning, that emphasize patterns. Teachers find their own thinking about teaching and material changes as they work with such models. Changing our approaches to material can lead to improvements in our teaching. Personal growth and professional growth are not mutually exclusive.

Do rappers and foreign policy elements share significant similarities? Yes, and examining one can truly enlighten thinking about the other. Interdisciplinary thinking is an effective tool for understanding and interacting effectively with our world. And isn’t that part of what we seek to equip students to do?

  1. van Leer, O. in Perkins, D. N. (ed), Thinking: the Second International Conference (Philadelphia: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1987), 405.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 407.
  4. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R., eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), 9.

No comments: