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Why do we need interdisciplinary learning in schools?

This article is a variation of a blog post previously shared on the London Interdisciplinary School website.

In September 2021, the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) opened its doors to a founding cohort of 65 students, offering an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree spanning beyond the siloed nature of traditional higher education. Our curriculum — the first of its kind in the UK — enables students to study related concepts and theories from multiple disciplines. This innovative way of learning gives students an opportunity to explore multiple disciplinary perspectives in order to understand and tackle complex problems.

At LIS, we think there’s a straightforward case for an interdisciplinary degree: problems are interdisciplinary, so our curriculum should be too. When it comes to making the case for interdisciplinary learning in schools, however, we have to seriously consider the many other competing demands on schools’ time. When so much effort is required to help students master ‘the basics’, why complicate matters by trying to bring subjects together?

We know just how difficult it is to create interdisciplinary units – and to timetable them. But here are three reasons we think it’s still worth doing.

1. Early specialisation limits career exploration

Currently, the school curriculum is constructed as if the end goal for everyone is to become an expert in a single subject. Pupils are made to gradually narrow down the range of subjects they study, covering ever fewer areas, until they end up with one field of post-school study.

This path delays career exploration, as young people choose school subjects based purely on what might give them the best chance of getting specific qualifications or grades. Delaying career exploration is particularly detrimental for young people who don’t have much exposure to a range of careers amongst their family or friends.

Moreover, such narrowing reinforces the false divide between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ subjects. Inevitably, because it’s attached to different post-school destinations, the divide is stratified: whilst university might not be everyone’s first choice in terms of their career interests or how they like to learn, as the pathway that holds open the most doors – and looks best for school outcomes – it’s usually the one young people are directed towards.

Interdisciplinary learning aims to break down these divides. We should be able to explore the world of work whilst also studying conceptual and theoretical material. Most areas of work are packed with interesting ‘academic’ content, and there are many benefits to studying this content in the context of a particular problem or opportunity.

2. Integrating knowledge creates better results

At the end of the educational journey, the value of what we’ve learned shows up in what we can do with our knowledge and skills. The act of integrating learning from different subjects and fields is not straightforward. However, we only have to look at the decision-making at different phases of the pandemic to see this: do we listen to epidemiologists modelling progress of the disease mathematically? Historians extrapolating from the case of the Spanish flu? Behavioural psychologists? Finding effective ways to combine the insights from very different fields involves a knowledge and skill all of its own.

We believe that the explicit learning of how to integrate knowledge shouldn’t wait until higher education. The IB demonstrates that young people can engage in ‘Theory of Knowledge’ at key stage 5, and the success of models like Philosophy for Children (P4C) indicates that even primary age children are capable of engaging in important debates about epistemology. We know therefore that school children can engage in thinking about interdisciplinary integration, but there is still a long way to go in helping them actually do it.

One of our goals at LIS is to codify methods to integrate knowledge from different fields, through techniques such as mapping, simulation, and the creation of synthetic products. Giving young people the chance to practice these skills at school should help them to come out more confident to take on challenges in the workplace and their wider lives, and really maximise the benefits of the education they’ve had.

3. Problems are interdisciplinary, so our curricula should be too

The world is interconnected, complex, and diverse. A big network of non-linear knowledge — with challenges that don’t map neatly onto discrete disciplines.

Is it possible to tackle a challenge as complex as climate change without reference to (at least some of) ecology, economics, geography, and agriculture? We don’t think so — and that’s before you start considering the sociological and psychological knowledge needed to create mindset shifts and inspire tangible action.

What about the ethics of artificial intelligence? An infamous can of worms that draws on computer science, philosophy, design, and many other disciplines. These challenges aren’t the stuff of dystopia or science fiction. They can’t be solved by individuals working in isolation, yet most university courses in the UK are still structured in silos, leaving graduates ill-equipped to tackle the complexity that surrounds them. These challenges require interdisciplinary thinking, and interdisciplinary solutions.

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of our degrees and innovative approach to admissions, our student body is made up of students who have studied very different subjects at A Level (or equivalent). And because the degree covers a range of disciplinary perspectives, students may find themselves immersed in a subject they haven’t studied since their GCSEs.

This is where the problem-centric curriculum offers students the benefit of applying knowledge and skill in context. Learning about economics, chemistry, or history as they relate to social inequality or sustainability can help students master abstract, conceptual content from across disciplines — and facilitate learning in areas that students might previously have thought weren’t their strongest.

We know this way of teaching and learning has been a success thanks to U.S. studies of project-based learning, particularly in areas of science and maths. At LIS we take this approach a step further by also teaching quantitative and qualitative methods, where students learn to understand and apply numbers, words, and images as representation systems.

Ultimately, graduates of our undergraduate degree will develop the unique ability to combine insights from very different fields, and apply a range of methods to investigate, quantify, and tackle problems.

4. How can we support teachers and colleges?

At LIS, we want to help schools to find space and opportunities for this interdisciplinary learning. If you’re interested in learning more about how we could support your college’s efforts, do get in touch. We offer in person or virtual enrichment sessions for secondary school students. Find out more here.

The London Interdisciplinary School is a Higher Education provider based in London. They are currently accepting applications for both their bachelor’s and master’s degrees for the 2023 cohorts.

By Dr Amelia Peterson, Head of Teaching and Learning at LIS, and Kristen Stockdale, Marketing Manager at LIS

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