Interdisciplinary Thinking and Four Cognitive Abilities

Initial Publication Date: September 2, 2010

Interdisciplinary teaching is a demanding enterprise. Therefore, educators must believe there are sufficient gains for their students to justify the investments they must make and the stresses they will face as they expand their instructional approach. Allen Repko (2009), Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program for the School of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington, identifies four cognitive abilities (i.e., brain-based skills and mental processes that are needed to carry out tasks) that interdisciplinary learning fosters which helps to explain the emerging popularity of interdisciplinary inquiry;

  1. Perspective-Taking Techniques (Baloche, Hynes, and Berger 1996)
    • This refers to the capacity to understand multiple viewpoints on a given topic including an appreciation of the differences between disciplines and especially their perspectives on how to approach a problem and their rules of evidence.
  2. Development of Structural Knowledge
    • This is composed of two elements, declarative knowledge (i.e., factual information) and Procedural Knowledge (i.e., process-based information), which are needed to solve complex problems.
  3. Integration of conflicting insights from alternative disciplines
    • When ideas from a variety of disciplines are embraced when investigating an issue alternative perspectives and predictions often arise. The intellectual challenge is to find ways to account for these which entails careful and creative thinking rather than revert to a single disciplinary explanation.
  4. Interdisciplinary Understanding
    • This entails seeing an issue from an array of perspectives and recognizing how each of the alternative approaches influences one another.