The following essay seeks to generate a reflection on the role played by interdisciplinary education in the development of 21st century skills and its role as a curricular articulator in higher education. In recent years, interdisciplinary education at a higher level has taken on great relevance since it adjusts to the needs of students and workers of the 21st century. Understanding education only as an isolated discipline is related, rather, to a model based on the needs of the first industrial revolution, where the tasks used to be specialized and monothematic. This is why an educational strategy based on interdisciplinary studies can favor flexibility and curricular integration in higher education. To understand this thesis we have to bear in mind the meaning of discipline, which is “a field of science with a particular research objective and a corresponding body of accumulated specialist knowledge” (Menken & Keestra, 2016); and of interdiscipline, which “integrates the relevant concepts, theories and/or methodologies of different academic disciplines as well as the results and insights that these disciplines generate” (Gaff & Ratcliff, 1997; Meken & Keestra, 2016). Specialized and disciplinary jobs are increasingly supplied by technology. Therefore, at some point in the future, human beings will cease to perform these jobs entirely. What technology still cannot produce is the incredible capacity for integration of knowledge, skills and attitudes that we can achieve as a species, as long as external and internal conditions drive them. From this perspective, it is worth asking ourselves, why are contents, skills and attitudes still being taught in only discipline-centered careers? Does this model align with the labor and educational requirements of the 21st century? We will review below some perspectives to understand the importance of interdisciplinary education, as well as certain limitations and challenges that arise when putting this type of teaching into practice.
Wicked problems cut across disciplines. Understanding the challenges facing the world today such as global warming, social inequity, or the quality of health from one discipline is practically impossible. It is for this reason that, in 2015, Heads of State and Government meeting at the Sustainable Development Summit proposed the Sustainable Development Goals, better known as SDGs. There are 17 SDGs that require rich and poor countries to adopt measures to curb the climate and social crisis. If we take into consideration these 17 topics of wicked problems, perhaps we could consider them as study areas in higher education and create a curriculum that proposes careers without specific purposes. Thus, they might articulate a path of transversal skills for the resolution of one particular SDG, such as the one designed by the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education. This institution, through its new educational project Modelo Tec21, offers interdisciplinary programs based on 4 key components: learning based on challenges, personalization and flexibility, inspiring teachers, and memorable experiences. It proposes that formerly, students used to choose a career, now they choose a path (IEP Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, 2021). This curricular transformation is highly relevant when considering what university students should learn. Consecutively, this specific curricular model aroused great interest in the international academic community. If we consider a curriculum based on competencies that contribute to the solution of wicked problems, rather than standardized and pre-established careers, we could guide and give purpose to the learning process of university students with a predetermined and relevant purpose, therefore promoting an inductive way of learning. Let’s think of a model where a student can choose an SDG of interest to contribute to solutions on that topic and can learn from multiple disciplines the necessary skills to become an expert in solving that SDG, instead of choosing a specific career. As a result, society would obtain a person with more significant competencies, greater integration, and with a purpose that adjusts to the needs of the 21st century.
Interdisciplinary education favors the integration of generic competencies and promotes the application of specific competencies. On the one hand, Generic competencies may be understood as “behaviors associated with performances common to various organizations, social environments, economic sectors and branches of productive activity, and are necessary to enter and adapt to a work environment” (PEI Universidad del Desarrollo). Some examples of generic competencies are: effective communication, efficiency, analytical vision and autonomy, among others. On the other hand, specific competencies are defined as “a properly disciplinary performance. They are performances linked to the knowledge and use of it in different contexts of the specific profession that the student is studying. They include specialized knowledge that allows mastering the contents and tasks of each professional field” (PEI Universidad del Desarrollo). In an interdisciplinary learning context, both students and teachers are challenged by multiple aspects that can create a sometimes-difficult environment. When various disciplines come into contact, many times, especially in initial experiences, students and teachers can be frustrated by having a worldview of learning limited to the context in which they have learned (disciplinary-centered). It is precisely this challenging context based on interdisciplinary approaches which test the students and allows the integration of said generic competences, since it “forces” students to leave their comfort zone. This can result in a positive effect on cognitive flexibility, adaptability, improvements in teamwork and communication, among others. It is possible to integrate generic competencies in a real context, as the problems of the 21st century require. Let’s take as an example an interdisciplinary project that seeks to make people with a disability or disease related to Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) visible through a micro-documentary. For this, fourth-year students of SLP, Advertising and Journalism careers at a university are invited to participate. They must achieve this challenge in one semester, in which qualitative research tools (ethnography), storytelling, script construction and audiovisual production will be delivered. They must work in groups containing at least one student from each discipline throughout the semester. During this period, SLP students will contribute with their technical knowledge and skills from the disciplinary content in order to provide a theoretical framework to their peers. On the other hand, Journalism students will have more tools than their classmates to carry out the research interviews and the script for the micro-documentary. Finally, Advertising students will be able to identify the insights obtained from the research and contribute to the construction of audiovisual material. From these contents and skills, each student will be able to apply specific competencies learned throughout the entire career. In addition to this, working in groups with such different student profiles will allow them to further develop the generic competencies declared as 21st century skills, such as effective communication, efficiency, flexibility, teamwork, and critical and reflective thinking, among others. Although these generic competencies can be developed in disciplinary contexts, an interdisciplinary approach will allow them to be stimulated in a context more similar to real working life, where many disciplines converge to solve complex problems. This becomes highly relevant and makes us ask the question: why do we teach what we teach? Do we teach it to form a group of competencies without a specific purpose, or to teach competencies that allow students to face the challenges that the current world present us with? Education in an interdisciplinary context allows us to get closer to the premise of proposing a curriculum that provides the necessary tools to solve problems in various contexts rather than limiting ourselves to specific and specialized content.
An interdisciplinary education context can generate a challenging but, at the same time, “hostile” learning environment (wicked learning environment) if the teachers involved do not have the necessary skills for this type of teaching. Interdisciplinary education requires different pedagogical skills than those usually observed in university teaching, at least in the Chilean context (where I live). Teachers of interdisciplinary studies play a constant active learning role alongside their students. This invites them to update their teaching methods permanently and to understand their role as “teacher as a coach” to promote reflection and critical thinking, instead of giving literal answers to their students’ questions. To practice “learning coaching”, academics need students to identify their own barriers and facilitators to learning in an interdisciplinary way so that their results improve. It is important for teachers, as coaches, to leave the content expert (only) behind and focus on being an expert in the learning process for an interdisciplinary project. This can have different impacts, such as reducing teachers’ anxiety because they may not need to handle all the content of an interdisciplinary project. It will also allow teachers to be “at the same level” with students, generating a more equal relationship between them, which can contribute to a better learning environment. One of the most important tools to be a teacher as a coach is to ask the right questions at the right times. That way students will create their own answers, promoting their active role in learning and, thus, encouraging critical and reflective thinking.
However, a large group of university teachers, at least in the Chilean context, are not accustomed to this type of teaching, which is why it is presented as a limitation when applying this type of curriculum at the micro level. Let us take as an example a teacher who faces the same interdisciplinary project mentioned in the previous section. The teacher is a professional of SLP, in one of his classes a Journalism student asks him about a technical aspect of structured interviews. The teacher does not have the answer, since it is not his area of knowledge; this makes him anxious and prompts him to question his teaching skills in that context. Although the teacher could look for the answer for the next class, this type of problem will continue to happen recurrently in this field, which leads to considering the teaching role as a learning coach and not as an expert in the content (only). From this point of view, the teacher as a coach must be able to accompany, facilitate and help students achieve their goals and develop skills using their own resources. If the teacher succeeds in fostering these skills in students, then they will be able to apply them in any context, regardless of the discipline being studied.
In conclusion, in this essay we discussed the relevance of an interdisciplinary-based education as a strategy that generates greater flexibility and integration in higher education curricula. “‘A person who is a mile wide and an inch deep is not an educated person. But a person who is a mile deep and an inch wide is not an educated person either.” With those words Mike Edmiston invites us to reflect on the convenience of being specialists in one discipline or managing multiple disciplines. The answer probably will not be black or white. What we do know is that as a species we are polymaths by nature, we are interested in multiple activities from birth, without limitations, and that a restrictively disciplinary education can overshadow various talents and interests in people. Therefore, the first question raised in the introduction, why are skills, contents and attitudes still being taught in isolated disciplinary fields?, may be related to the fact that the new teaching methodologies and a structuring of the curriculum based on interdiscipline is something complex to generate, since it involves new educational paradigms and that can bring certain resistance on the part of those involved, as it requires increased resources and training. When facing an education model based on interdisciplinary studies, we must consider teacher training, since the role they play is far from the traditional pedagogical role to which we are accustomed. The teacher must be an expert in the learning process rather than an expert in the content (only), a role that we call a learning coach.
Wicked problems that the 21st century challenges us to solve require solutions from multiple areas of knowledge and need people to be trained to face them in an interdisciplinary way. This work can be deliberated since education. Does it articulate a model based on discipline-centered careers with the demands of the 21st century? In my opinion, not 100%. This does not mean that disciplinary-specific competencies are not necessary, but that they need to be integrated in projects that require the scrutiny of multiple perspectives. We understand that complex problems cannot be viewed from a single angle and need to be solved from a set of perspectives that interact collaboratively with each other. Still, interdisciplinary work can favor the integration of generic skills, and the application of specific competencies and brings them closer to the real world of work. If we concentrate our energies on interdisciplinary education, we can contribute to training more qualified professionals and technicians for work that the current world requires. Therefore, the main challenge is to train teachers to carry out this type of teaching. Finally, we will be able to generate a more consistent, authentic work, and we will contribute to the eudaimonia of both students and teachers of higher education.
de Greef, L., Post, G., Vink, C., Wenting, L. (2017). Designing Interdisciplinary Education: A Practical Handbook for University Teachers. Amsterdam University Press.
Gaff, J. G., & Ratcliff, J. L. (1997). Handbook of the undergraduate curriculum: A comprehensive guide to the purposes, structures, practices, and change.
González, J. (2016) Reflexiones iniciales sobre la concepción del diseño y desarrollo curricular en un mundo contemporáneo y complejo. Universidad Mayor de San Andrés.
Menken, S., & Keestra, M. (2016). An introduction to interdisciplinary research: Theory and practice. Amsterdam University Press.
PEI Tecnológico de Monterrey: https://tec.mx/es/modelo-tec21#section2 PEI Universidad del Desarrollo.
Biography: Sebastián Merino
Speech-Language Pathologist & teacher at Universidad del Desarrollo (UDD), Santiago, Chile. Sebastián has worked as a lecturer for undergraduate and postgraduate students, and the last years at iCubo, the institute for innovation and interdisciplinary studies at the same university. Merino, has developed skills for teaching in interdisciplinary subjects by Project Based Learning and Challenge Based Learning, he has a master’s degree in Curriculum Innovation & Educational Assessment, a master’s degree in Vocal Intervention Strategies and a Diploma in Clinical Teaching. On the other hand, Sebastián is a huge fan of music & theatre, thus, is the Vocal Director of the musicals at UDD.