What is Interdisciplinary Teaching?

Initial Publication Date: September 2, 2010

Interdisciplinary instruction entails the use and integration of methods and analytical frameworks from more than one academic discipline to examine a theme, issue, question or topic. Interdisciplinary education makes use of disciplinary approaches to examine topics, but pushes beyond by: taking insights from a variety of relevant disciplines, synthesizing their contribution to understanding, and then integrating these ideas into a more complete, and hopefully coherent, framework of analysis.

In dealing with multi-faceted issues such as teenage pregnancy, new drug development, genetically modified foods, and health care access, interdisciplinary perspectives are needed to adequately address the complexity of the problems and to forge viable policy responses.

Interdisciplinary teaching is different from multi- or cross-disciplinary teaching in that it requires the integration and synthesis of different perspectives rather than a simple consideration of multiple viewpoints.

Some Definitions

Cross-disciplinary analysis – examines an issue typically germane to one discipline through the lens of another discipline (i.e., how physicists explore music, sociological perspectives on the purpose of religion).

Multi-disciplinary analysis – examines an issue from multiple perspectives, without making a concerted effort to systemically integrate disciplinary perspectives.

Inter-disciplinary analysis – examines an issue from multiple perspectives, leading to a systematic effort to integrate the alternative perspectives into a unified or coherent framework of analysis.

What Makes Interdisciplinary Instruction Different?

A single disciplinary perspective often has limitations in that it is driven by the norms and framework of a particular discipline without consideration and incorporation of alternative views. The single disciplinary view can lead to hegemony which prevents critical assessment of both their own and other perspectives. In contrast, interdisciplinary education draws on multiple disciplines to acquire a deep and thorough understanding of complex issues and challenges students to synthesize what each of the disciplines offers before attempting to design efforts to resolve noted concerns.

Teaching Economic Growth: An Interdisciplinary Example

Every Principles of Economics student learns that an economy grows in the near term through the use of additional labor, subject to the law of diminishing returns, and over a longer horizon by adding more capital and technology. This set of insights is depicted using the circular flow model or diagram. After discussing this perspective an educator can ask if other disciplines have additional insights to offer on this topic. They should expect some students to indicate that natural scientists often challenge this narrow, economic based, characterization of the productive process as incomplete and potentially misleading. This provides an opportunity for the instructor to introduce and model for students the integration of insights regarding economic growth from both economists and natural scientists.

For instance, Ecologists have argued for decades that the economy does not function separate from the natural world. They assert that there are ecological constraints or planetary boundaries that govern the economy and alter the conventional economic characterization of the link between inputs and output growth. They offer three insights that an interdisciplinary economics educator could integrate into their conventional analysis to produce an interdisciplinary exploration of economic growth. First, natural resources need to be included as an input to economic growth and must simultaneously be viewed a constraint on the process since they are not easily altered in the near term. Second, the production process creates waste which must be assimilated back into the biosphere and the environment may be coming under severe stress due to this inefficiency in the production process. This idea/concept leads directly to the third notion that the contribution of inputs to output is contingent upon the level and status of natural resources. For example, the combination of boats and fishers in the Gulf of Mexico will be unable to produce any seafood for a period due to the condition of the Gulf waters as a result of the BP oil leak. Thus, expanding the standard economic framework used to understand economic growth to account for ecological insights provides a richer understanding of production and growth.

Assignment: Ask students to expand the circular flow framework to formally account for ecological insights to produce an interdisciplinary framework for exploring economic growth. Then, students should address the following questions using the interdisciplinary framework they have developed, (1) how big can the economy grow before it starts to push up against these planetary boundaries? (2) where does the pollution go and how might this effect the environment and the productivity of other inputs? (3) how much energy and what amount of natural resources are used to sustain the economic system? and (4) what is the effect of a degraded environment of the economy and the quality of life?

Assessment: Students who approach the problem of growth with a purely economic focus would be assigned a C for the assignment, while those who account for insights from Ecology but are unable to clearly integrate ideas from both disciplines in their answers would be given a B. A grade of A is reserved for those who display the ability to integrate notions associated with growth from both Economics and Ecology.