Transdisciplinarity: Learning together to teach together

By BinBin Pearce, Carolina Adler and Christian Pohl

BinBin Pearce (biography)

Are there innovative methods that enable students to frame and confront the complexity of real-world problems in the context of sustainable development? Which learning approaches help students engage with design thinking to understand a particular system, and also to start thinking about responsible solutions? Which approaches enable students to reflect on their own actions, as well as become aware of the importance of diverse stakeholder perspectives and how these play out in real-world contexts?

Carolina Adler (biography)

What demand is there for guidance on how to teach in these challenging contexts across disparate fields, as outlined in the inspiring blog posts by Tanja Golja and Dena Fam (on supporting academics’ learning to design, teach and research transdisciplinary programs) and by Katja Brundiers and Arnim Wiek (on co-creating award courses for designing, teaching, researching, and facilitating transdisciplinarity), especially for those who have the most direct interaction with students?

Christian Pohl (biography)

Inter- and transdisciplinary and design thinking approaches to teaching and learning are relevant for many different disciplines, including public health, engineering, and environment systems sciences. Many academic departments can be involved: information technology, atmospheric physics, chemistry, social sciences, ecology, and others. They have much to both teach and learn from each other. For example, there are similarities and inspiring differences in how a single concept, such as “problem framing” can be captured and communicated.

Learning objectives that are inherently linked to inter- and transdisciplinary and design thinking approaches in teaching still need to be clearly defined and assessed. These are often times connected to metacognitive skills, higher-order cognitive skills (creativity, reflection, etc.), and social emotional skills (perception, empathy, etc.). These skills, perhaps, are what make the difference between living with creativity, flexibility, and openness, rather than going through life with passive acceptance.

However, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how effectively these skills can be taught within a classroom or in the context of higher education. A particular challenge is in demonstrating evidence-based rationales for how these meta-cognitive skills are attained through assessment and grading; given how the assessment of these skills is not necessarily amenable to conventional forms of metric or scaled grading and evaluation.

There seems to be a thirst for knowledge about how to make interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity a reality in academic life, rather than merely an ideal or concept. There is an interest not only in finding ideas about how to teach, but also how to implement and collaborate better on transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research projects.

These are key findings from a workshop entitled, “Sharing experiences in transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and design thinking-based teaching” organized by the Transdisciplinarity Lab (D-USYS TdLab), a teaching and research unit based within the Department of Environment Systems Science at ETH Zurich, Switzerland on 17 February 2016. The workshop was part of a larger teaching-focused grant by ETH Zurich (Innovedum) to explore innovative methods that enable students to frame and confront the complexity of real-world problems in the context of sustainable development. Experts from the U.S., Chile, the Netherlands, Australia and Switzerland shared their experiences in fostering learning approaches and environments that enable student-directed inquiry, in contact with real-world cases. Keynote presenters were Karin Fortuin (Wageningen University), Luis Gonzaléz Fuenzalida (University of Chile Santiago), Linda Neuhauser (University of California Berkeley), and BinBin Pearce (ETH Zurich).

We were surprised and encouraged by the demand for the workshop. We now know that it is very possible to tap into a network of people who also care about the same things we do and that we can call on each other for help and perspective. Especially when sufficient institutional support and investment are available, the assessments and activities that are possible to implement in higher education are truly inspirational. As a result of this workshop, we are encouraged to continue connecting with others as we push forward with our own pursuits. We see colleagues who have been successful at implementing new ideas in higher education as a model of what we can do in our institution.

Let’s continue building this great community of people, and create the sort of education for students that pushes both them and us to be our best selves. We’d love to hear your comments and reflections.

Biography: BinBin J. Pearce is a post-doctoral researcher and lecturer working at the Trandisciplinarity Lab, Department of Environmental Systems Science (D-USYS), ETH Zürich. She is developing new teaching concepts within the field of environmental sustainability, especially integrating design thinking with systems thinking, and research-oriented course designs for Bachelors and Masters students at D-USYS.

Biography: Carolina Adler is Scientific Coordinator/Researcher/Lecturer in the Transdisciplinarity Lab, Department of Environment Systems Science, ETH Zürich. Carolina’s research interests and activities centre on problems of policy relevance, focusing on the effects and challenges of global change in society. She was awarded the 2010 Harold D. Lasswell Prize for best dissertation in the field of public policy.

Biography: Christian Pohl is co-director and Senior Scientist in the Transdisciplinarity Lab, Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zürich. His main interest is transdisciplinarity as an intellectual tool to address socially relevant issues, like environmental problems or sustainable development. In his research, he accordingly focuses on transdisciplinary research as a process of knowledge co-production that interrelates research and societal change towards sustainable development.

3 thoughts on “Transdisciplinarity: Learning together to teach together”

  1. BinBin Pearce and her colleagues’ observations about the challenges related to assessment and grading strongly resonated with me, because it made me reflect on my own experiences.

    In our work on transdisicplinary (td) projects, which often includes courses, where students learn and apply td practices, we noticed the importance of higher order cognitive skills and social emotional skills. A set of these skills and capacities has been summarized as “interpersonal competence” in the context of sustainability. Interpersonal competence emerged as one of the key competencies for sustainability.

    Students learn about these interpersonal competencies in the project-based td-courses, practice them, and reflect about their practice. However, there is limited time for learning and practicing these interpersonal skills, because the main effort in the course is dedicated to doing td-research on water-, food- or other issues.

    To ease the pressure of learning while doing for students, we started to offer a course that primarily focuses on learning and practicing these interpersonal skills. We combined a variety of formats in order to assess how students apply these skills in the context of a project, their team, and in interactions with their practice partners. These formats included structured self- and peer-assessments, instructors observing and appraising students’ real-time performance, as well as team-based reflection involving students and instructors.

    Thereby, the “assessment” is formative aiming to support students in developing self-awareness and in mindfully nurturing and practicing their interpersonal skills. In developing the various forms of “assessment” and subsequent practices, I found the information and guidance provided by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkley, very helpful. The center offers a wide range of “self-assessment” formats and evidence-supported approaches on how to practice and nurture skills like compassion, social emotional intelligence, and creativity. Yet, I would love to learn: what approaches have others used and what was their experience with them?

  2. To contribute to the discussion on transdisciplinary teaching and learning, I post this example from Latin America.

    The Masters program in Integrated Coastal Management (ICM) is part of the “Interdisciplinary Center for Integrated Coastal Management of the Southern Cone” (C-MCISur) funded by Espacio Interdisciplinario Universidad de la República, Uruguay or UdelaR.

    Given the relevance of the coastal zone in Uruguay, integral development must rely heavily on recognizing the necessity that sustainable practices and strategic planning in this zone are needed to prevent further degradation. In this context, coastal education for sustainability is a crucial requirement where UdelaR can play a major role.

    The Masters program, based on the phases of the management cycle, is an innovative program where students and professors interact in a teaching-learning environment, addressing complex coastal cases in cooperation with communities, in order to experience the complexity of coastal management processes in real situations.

    This dimension includes the Masters program MCISur and other educational activities at various levels, such as an ICM course for mayors and local coastal technicians. The Masters program aims to train professionals beyond previous training in specific disciplines so that they are able to address coastal management through a critical, interdisciplinary and participatory perspective. The program constitutes an environment where students and teachers from different disciplines (e.g. lawyers, architects, biologists, oceanographers, sociologists and psychologists) interact with coastal populations and managers.

    Transdisciplinary activities involve the development of projects with participation of local stakeholders, mainly through the development of case studies by students and professors of this postgraduate program. A major ambition is to attain coordination between scientific and traditional local knowledge, which in turn contributes to consensus decisions for approaching sustainable solutions.

    It also aims to provide strategies and tools to help experience the complexity of the management processes in real situations. Two major challenges faced were: 1) to reach consensus on how to facilitate a holistic view to develop coastal development plans, and 2) attaining a working methodology involving the effective participation of coastal populations, as a means of securing sustainability.

  3. It’s wonderful to see this conversation about TD learning and teaching continue to evolve! I have really appreciated the response by Katja Brundiers and Armin Wiek to the blogpost by Tanja Golja and myself, as well as further discussions we’ve had with many international colleagues as a result of Bin Bin, Carolina and Christian’s workshop in Zurich.

    With the rapidly increasing number of programs internationally touting themselves as transdisciplinary, what has been missing so far is a focus on teaching and learning. In particular how TD learning might be facilitated in practice seems to have slipped under the radar (and is definitely missing from the literature!).

    Few well documented and detailed case studies exist on how TD learning has been facilitated and the relative success of particular methods/tools and practices across a range of projects and programs. In particular the detail of how students are taught TD approaches of inquiry and – as Tanja and I posted at the end of last year – how academics learn how to teach, design and research transdisciplinary programs (and project managers/team members might learn to implement these practices/programs) is rare.

    In saying this I am not dismissing the great resources already available from the US National Cancer Institute (Team Science Toolkit), Northwestern University (Team Science Online Training Modules), the Swiss-based td-net information hub, The University of Edinburgh (with practice-based Short Guides) and the Integration and Implementation Sciences network (I2S) to name a few. But there is value in trying to gather together in-depth, detailed case studies of the processes and practices of TD teaching and learning which, as yet, are incredibly hard to come by. Even better is having the opportunity to talk to each other face to face about these challenges.

    In hoping to shed some light on the broad range of programs supporting TD teaching and learning, we are currently conducting an international scan of existing programs. As the minute detail can only be vaguely grasped via online references, forums, networks, and workshops like the one reported here to openly share not only experiences but also connect and follow up with other like minded folk are, in my view, invaluable.

    The question of how operational skills, as well as what you call ‘social emotional skills and higher order cognitive skills,’ are taught and evaluated is an interesting question. Innate qualities such as creativity and curiosity for example, may well be why some people become designers rather than physicists or choose TD approaches as opposed to disciplinary paths. I’m not a teacher, so beyond being curious as to whether innate qualities can or should be assessed, I’ll leave this question others…


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