Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Commenting on Commentary: Interdisciplinary People vs. Teams?

"Focusing on interdisciplinary teams instead of interdisciplinary people reinforces standard disciplinary boundaries rather than breaking them down. An interdisciplinary team is a committee in which members identify themselves as an expert in something else besides the actual scientific problem at hand, and abdicate responsibility for the majority of the work because it's not their field. Expecting a team of disciplinary scientists to develop a new field is like sending a team of monolingual diplomats to the United Nations."

Check out this Plos Commentary on Antedisciplinary Science. He makes some good points. Interdisciplinary learning is a 'hot' topic at the levels of higher education (here and here), but very little has trickled down to K-12 levels - probably for many reasons (e.g. teachers aren't trained for this, NCLB woes, students failing to meet standards).

Other than general politeness guidelines, most K-12 students don't learn about how to interact in groups. In the name of democratic classrooms, sometimes the emphasis is more on equal treatment than diversity of thinking and problem solving styles. This is unfortunate, though, because it may be that an individual's greatest contribution to a group will be found in their differences - ideas, fund of knowledge, personal history or associations, and thinking style- rather than their traits in common.

Many of the most successful innovative personalities are quite lopsided in their cognitive and social abilities. In fact, sometimes very smart people can make big mistakes by diluting their native talents by brooding and working too hard on their weaknesses rather than devoting themselves to their strengths.

Sean Eddy sounds like a polymath who is accustomed to crossing disciplines regularly-and these sort of folk are often great paradigm shifters in business or scholarly areas. However, there is always a flipside to this. Polymaths are also a restless sort. They are less attuned to incremental development of an area, and they may be so independent-minded that they work better with subordinates (e.g. their workers) than with colleagues.

Creativity by committee can be doomed to fail if the groups themselves are not chosen carefully by some who knows the talents and the personalities involved. Groups can also get cumbersome with increased size and extreme diversity (no one knows what anyone is talking about), and they can be sabotaged if given too little authority, or overly managed or supervised. Members of great groups often need to be recruited and valued for their distinctive roles, contributions, and personalities, and they need a worthy problem to devote themselves to.

As public school kids ourselves, we often found group activities to be frustrating: the experiences were often chaotic (people thrown together), members were not differentiated (everyone try to solve a problem and suggest things), and sociological aspects could overshadow any lesson or process (for instance, domination by a few strong personalities, or apathy or confusion of all).

We wonder, how much time is spent trying to improve collaboration between teachers of different subjects or grades, or offering them practice at collaborative problem solving? It's hard to teach it, if you haven't had successful experiences yourself.

Creative Collaboration - BBC Article


  1. 1) Having worked in a team-based environment, I found that it was indeed possible to develop a terrific multi-functional team based on people "thrown together" who had different backgrounds and different approaches to decision-making. But it did take outside training and individual effort on all our parts to make it work. 2) Now having taught university level political science,I am appalled by what is passing as social science at the high school level. What's being taught is "multi-disciplinary." And students reach the university not even able to identify where the UK is on a map. Multi-disciplinary work is fine - but first some basic knowledge, please. Then it's possible to cross fields creatively and productively.

  2. We hear you. We're on vacation now, but we'll post on the topic of facts-based learning. This is a great topic for more discussion.

  3. Anonymous4:29 AM

    There are lots of interesting bits to your comment on this commentary...

    Firstly you might be interested in this Australian High School, who are using interdisciplinary learning and I believe have had to do a lot of negotiating to get around the 'silo of knowledge' base of assessment to get a high school qualification and a tertiary entry schore: Also the public primary school we drive our kids some distance to go to... employs a project based learning approach and gets the children to mind map their topics against all the various areas of the curriculum, thus in effect encouraging them to explore it from a variety of disciplines. The primary school gets some pressure to march to the same drum as everyone else, though the ed.dept never seems to notice that they the state mandated benchmarking literacy and numeracy tests show the school community outperforming the rest of the state by far....hmmm...

    My second thought was about teaching students to work in teacms teams was the Alverno College's approach overtly addresses a LOT of great stuff - including the ability to work together, see their ability based curriculum : One of the tools I have recently experienced is the Team Management Institute, which looks at your work preferences within teams. Looks like a good start in terms of identifying people's role preferences and gap areas in teams and valuing each other's roles/contributions.



  4. Sue - Thanks for the references. We're going to check them out. We do think learning what you're good at and who you work best with is important in life. Our thinking and ways of interacting are not 'generic' - but rather quite different from each others'.

    The question of what is essential learning is a reasonable one to ask - Students should learn facts as well as flexible tools of learning that will allow them to be successful in a changing world...but 'citizenship' skills are also important for young peoples' eventual success in life, and that involves communication as well as knowing how to function independently as well as in a group.

    Project-based and interdisciplinary learning may be the best preparation students may receive for the changeable future, but the challenge is figuring out how to balance it with needs of a very divergent student population, and kids who lack basic processing and learning skills.

    We like the idea of a flexible educational option would allow students the option to have classes devoted to perceptual training and others with more conventional mixtures of lecture and interdisciplinary problem solving.

    What some people may not realize is that there are many kids who may require very basic perceptual training, but they may also have surprising strengths in other domains. Sometimes they really sparkle in project-based learning.

    If everyone's education is really individualized, it reduces the stigma of pullouts and special education. If everyone is different, then their education might look different too.

  5. Even if you put together an interdisciplinary team, it does no good if its not led by an interdisciplinary thinker/scholar. People need to hear this and understand it. Of course, if people did understand it, then I would be able to get more work than lecturer in interdisciplinary studies at UT-Arlington. :-)