Linking learning and research through transdisciplinary competences

By BinBin Pearce

BinBin Pearce (biography)

What are the objectives of transdisciplinary learning? What are the key competences and how do they relate to both educational goals and transdisciplinary research goals? At Transdisciplinarity Lab (TdLab), our group answered these questions by observing and reflecting upon the six courses at Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD levels that we design and teach in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich, Switzerland.

Six competence fields describe what we hope students can do with the help of our courses. A competence field contains a set of interconnected learning objectives for students. We use these competence fields as the basis for curriculum design. The competence fields were identified by reflecting on actual skills needed to conduct a transdisciplinary research process and by identifying elements from courses that have proven to be meaningful for students personally.

These competence fields are:

  1. Communicating values – Students are able to identify, ground and communicate assumptions and normative values in topics related to the concept of sustainable development.
  2. Reflecting about self and others – Students are reflective about their own perceptions and biases with regards to sustainable development.
  3. Applying concepts in the real-world – Students are able to appropriately apply conceptual knowledge to specific contexts, and, in parallel, exercise practical skills (such as project organization and time management) to deliver the required end products.
  4. Framing complex problems with others – Given a real-world topic and its accompanying conflicts and uncertainties, students are able to identify and frame clear, relevant problems with those who have contrasting perspectives or opinions.
  5. Researching in and with the real-world – Students are able to translate real-world problems into viable research questions. They are also able to identify the adequate research method(s) to investigate these questions and to co-produce knowledge with society.
  6. Imagining solutions and their consequences – Students are able to explore and develop solutions for real-world problems, while being aware of the possibility of unintended consequences of these solutions and taking responsibility for these consequences.

In making the link between transdisciplinary learning and research, we overlaid these competence fields with a pedagogical taxonomy and a transdisciplinary research framework to understand how these competences might contribute to the development of the student and to a transdisciplinary research process.

The pedagogical model is the classic Bloom’s Taxonomy (1986), which classifies learning objectives according to three domains: the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor or sensory domains. The cognitive learning domain encompasses reasoning and analytical skills. The affective learning domain describes the skills to be aware of self and others in terms of attitudes, emotions and feelings. The psychomotor domain focuses on physical, mechanical and sensory skills.

The transdisciplinary research framework is a sequence of design principles for the three phases of a transdisciplinary research process, as defined by Lang and colleagues (2012), sketched out in the table below. We matched a transdisciplinary competence field to the design principle(s) that would benefit from the application of the competence. In addition, we also matched Bloom’s taxonomy learning domains to each transdisciplinary design principle. The table below reveals the connection between the three schemes.

Transdisciplinary competence fields matched with the transdisciplinary research framework and Bloom’s taxonomy (source: Pearce et al., 2018)

The implications of these connections can be summarized as follows:

  • Both transdisciplinary research and transdisciplinary learning require the development of not only cognitive skills, but also affective and psychomotor skills, which include inter- and intra-personal skills, including the ability to communicate, to reflect, and to perceive the feeling and position of others. With the need to access skills in different learning domains, transdisciplinary research and learning are activities that develop the entire capacity of human learning, rather than focusing only on cognitive skills.
  • The transdisciplinary competences cover the span of skills needed for conducting an effective transdisciplinary research process. The list of competences listed here could serve as a reasonable foundation for a transdisciplinary education.
  • Skills needed to carry out a transdisciplinary research process straddle different learning domains. This suggests, for example, that cognitive skills could be developed alongside affective skills, rather than each being developed in isolation.

We hope that this framework may serve as a starting point for the design of other courses aimed at training future transdisciplinarians. As this work is in the beginning stages, we would also love to explore some of these concepts further with you. We look forward to hearing your experiences and comments.

To find out more about this framework and our teaching concepts:
Pearce, B., Adler, C., Senn, L., Krütli, P., Stauffacher, M. and Pohl, C. (2018, fothcoming). Making the link between transdisciplinary learning and research. In, D. Fam, L. Neuhauser, P. Gibbs (eds), Transdisciplinary theory, practice and education: The art of collaborative research and collective learning. Springer: Basel, Switzerland. Online:

Bloom, B. S. (ed.) (1986). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. 2nd ed., Longman: New York: United States of America.

Lang, D. J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., Swilling, M. and Thomas, C. (2012). Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: Practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science, 7, S1: 25–43. Online (DOI): 10.1007/s11625-011-0149-x

Biography: BinBin Pearce PhD is a lecturer, curriculum developer, and post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. Her focus is on developing tools and methods that foster students’ ability to perceive and resolve complexity in the real world with clarity and creativity, by integrating design thinking and systems thinking methodologies. She is a part of the teaching team for a yearlong course for first-year Bachelor students, “Umweltproblemlösen” (Environmental Problem Solving) and for a Masters-level course called “Transdisciplinary Case Study”. She is also the coordinator and coach for the Transdisciplinarity Lab Winter School “Science meets Practice”, a week-long training program which aims to foster skills for PhD students from all disciplines to see how perspectives in research could be interpreted for societal needs.

10 thoughts on “Linking learning and research through transdisciplinary competences”

  1. Dear BinBin

    I really liked your blog. As one of the authors of a paper you referred to, I would like to put the transdisciplinary competences in the light of ‘Sustainability Science’. In this context, I couldn’t agree with you more by emphasizing ‘communication skills’ (across disciplines, people, cultures etc.) as a key asset that transdisciplinary students should have. It is a good development that also in many ‘Sustainability Science’ programs a lot of attention is being given to that by teaching students social skills. Also, over the last several years, Sustainability Science programs have acknowledged the importance of the social sciences by including modules on e.g. psychology, sociology, governance and innovation, and by including more qualitative research methods (like participatory approaches).

    However, what is worrisome is that this development has gone at the cost of the more natural sciences (like climate science and ecology) and quantitative research methods (like modelling, statistics and multi-criteria analysis). What you may end up with are students that communicate very well, are able to organise a stake-holder session, but do not know when to perform what statistical test, have no idea of the difference between validating and calibrating a model, and write CO2 without the ‘2’ as sub-script.

    Concepts as ‘complexity’, ‘resilience’, as well as basic knowledge of the natural sciences are as important as that of the social sciences. Unfortunately, most students seem to be a little hesitant to choose courses or programs that include a fair share of natural sciences. Driven by need to increase student-numbers, program managers opt for the easy way and make their bachelors and masters more appealing to students by entering buzz-words like innovation, social ‘whatever’ etc. (of course, similarly, you also do not want to attract students for the sake of attracting them by using more ‘natural science’ related buzz-word as big-data, data-mining etc.).

    A true ‘sustainability scientist’ or ‘transdisciplinary scientist’ should be a communicator, catalyst, mediator, integrator, but also should have proper knowledge of the dynamics of natural and social systems, qualitative and quantitative research methods. This is not an easy task – but then again the problems we are facing today aren’t easy to fix as well.
    Kind regards, Pim

  2. I agree with Dr. Pearce’s statement that “…this framework may serve as a starting point for the design of other courses aimed at training future Transdisciplinarians…” and I would add that there is still question regarding the evolution of exactly what –arity we are referencing. Dr. Pearce’s proposed model does appear to be a good starting model that may prove to be a standard. I think you are affirming my point that “trans-” or “interdisciplinary” education is not only important, but rapidly proving to be the fundamental shift in the pedagogical paradigm. However, if you are suggesting the “trans-” or “interdisciplinary” or whatever “-arity” training should be incorporated into undergraduate or even graduate training, then that is where I would disagree. Academia, corporations, and governments have not accounted for nor even considered the undergraduate or graduate student’s outcome in a curriculum that crosses boundaries. When a student applies for a job after graduation anywhere, if their degree is not from an established curriculum they are going to face challenges of omission in every aspect of their career. Words are important….they make a difference, especially in a topic as fluid as the –arities, which cannot be used loosely and interchangeably. If my MA or PhD were in biology, my path would be clearly defined with the only obstacles and challenges being those faced by every other biologist. But if my MA or PhD were in biology ‘and’ economics or perhaps “Interdisciplinary with a focus in Biology and Economics,” a combination I can envision being important and popular with university administration as well as corporations as skills, but they would not be included as
    members of either disciplinary department with similar career path and benefits. It’s not that it can’t work, or shouldn’t work, but academia, government, and corporations have biases. Consider the more than 20 doctoral degrees acknowledged by the U.S. Department of Education. Each one is so similar, very little difference between any of them. But any doctoral degree that does not have “PhD” after the name is looked at with skepticism and a bias that makes them just a little less worthy than a degree with “PhD” on the document. Else, why does the public in general introduce us as a PhD without really knowing what our particular alphabetic moniker really is. It’s like saying “I’m going to zerox these pages…” Why not “I’m going to Canon these pages,” or “I’m going to H-P” these pages. The reason is PhD has become part of the social lexicon, just as Biologist or Economist, but nothing on the horizon for the Interdisciplinarian. And that is my point. Undergrads are entitled to full disclosure if they are going to travel down the path of interdisciplinarity or whatever –arity is decided upon, and understand the career and professional challenges and bias they will face. Without mentioning the name, I have a colleague at Georgetown that has a “PhD” in Interdisciplinary Studies. He is fluent in six languages, is in demand globally to speak on the subject matter he is trained in across disciplinary boundaries, has published more than 20 peer reviewed texts, and is in demand at Georgetown….as an adjunct. He is not even considered for any staff professor position at any level. His pure intellect and work ethic have made it possible for him to make a living, but he enjoys none of the opportunities associated with a staff position for no reason other than he is an Interdisciplinarian. We owe young students today better if we’re going to peddle interdisciplinary degrees and liberal studies degrees for the cash influx they provide the university. Again, my concern is with the students current and future. Dr. Pearce’s model is excellent, but it does not address what I believe are the ethical concerns I’ve mentioned. I don’t think we’re there yet; I don’t think we’re even addressing it yet.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments to the blogpost. I appreciate them greatly and hear what you’re saying. Your deep concern for students’ futures is admirable. I don’t think that we are definitively solving any systemic problems with higher education with a single framework. I also deeply share your concerns and this is the reason why I am motivated to find competences and ways of teaching and learning which actually respond to the needs of society. My father owns a small business in the U.S. and is constantly looking for graduates who have the courage to try new things, learn from others, and who know how to listen. For him, it doesn’t matter what degree program these students come out of, or what the label of this degree program is. He looks for what is being said in a conversation, eye contact, listening skills and honesty to self and others. These things people can sense intuitively and it moves them beyond the initial label. Here I am admitting to a deep optimism I have for people and what they will know if they really listen. My argument is that if we teach to cultivate whole human beings, it will be the beginning of real change in the system.

  3. Hi BinBin,
    Nice blog. I like how you frame the key competences (including not only factual knowledge, but also sensitivity for values, and competences for self-reflection and creative solution finding) and how you relate them to the td research process.

    cheers, Flurina

  4. What disciplinary area is a student’s degree in that would benefit from these courses? I understand the benefit to academics, specifically established faculty in universities or established researchers in corporations, with advanced degrees taking courses that help them to better understand how to function in what is essentially a program management environment, but I fail to see how any of this is of value to a student pursuing a degree in any academic field. It is difficult enough to find a job with an undergraduate degree from an established discipline, and even more difficult to land a faculty position with advanced degrees. To have subject matter outside of their chosen discipline seems to be an unnecessary distraction considering the employment environment and exorbitant cost of tuition required of students for syllabi directly related to their discipline. Shouldn’t this initiative be targeted and even restricted to established disciplinary faculty that may be participating in an inter-, cross-, multi-, trans-, or any of the other –arities research projects?

    • I have to respectfully challenge your perspective Dr. Creech questioning how such a framework might benefit disciplinarians seeking jobs and placement in appropriate and career charging placements. One might think that the framework that Pearce et al. are suggesting is a ‘golden rule’ for cross-disciplinarians. When we look closely at the observable and measurable competencies being highlighted here, the skills that employers and even contemporary academic environments seek in their human resource acquisitions are represented. The professional workforce is more than ever seeking those who can communicate and solve problems beyond the status quo. No matter if the industry is a highly innovative one, with expectations of novel outcomes and products, or if it is one with fewer noble aspirations for cutting edge outcomes, employers still struggle with finding employees and contributors who possess skills for communication and application beyond their own disciplinary specialties. As this the framework is grounded in sound (and respected) learning theory that emphasizes the scaffolding of experience, knowledge, and application, it is perspective that easily lends itself to experience and application based thinking like transdisciplinarity. I interpret this model as a typology of transdisciplinary skills sets are those very skills that ensure that individuals might be able to solve problems regardless of disciplinary specialty. For educators, it gives us a lens through which to consider how we shape and design our learning activities and more importantly our evaluation processes.

      • Dear glotreccgwuedu: Thank you for your prompt and courteous reply. I am not challenging nor discounting the value of any of the –arities in a research environment. I believe that groups such as I2S have demonstrated the value of crossing boundaries for research, both inside and out of the academe. Nor do I any in way discourage faculty from both working across boundaries, i.e crossing disciplines, or even acquiring further training and skills in other disciplines outside their primary. However, I do take issue to how the corporatized university has taken interdisciplinary studies and liberal studies curricula and marketed them to undergraduate and graduate students without the disclaimer that they will likely never be accepted into any disciplinary department, either inside or outside the academe. Put another way, if they are lucky they may be allowed to teach in a discipline as an adjunct, but they will never under the existing paradigm of disciplines be accepted into a career path within a discipline. I understand some of the reasons, such as an interdisciplinarian would be taking the space of a “legitimate” member of the discipline; admitting interdisciplinarians into a disciplinary department made be viewed as a threat to current disciplinary members of the department lacking interdisciplinary skills, and their are other reasons. I don’t agree, but I do understand. My issue is there is not, nor is anyone making an argument for admission of interdisciplinarians so they can establish a career that disciplinarians enjoy. A similar situation exists in the corporate world and even more so in the class conscious government sector. An interdisciplinary degree holder may secure a position based on a special or current need, but even in the corporate world an interdisciplinarian is viewed as an interloper in a specific department, especially in science research. I think schools offering interdisciplinary studies or liberal studies degrees are disingenuous in communicating career expectations to students. I believe either interdisciplinary or liberal studies degrees has tremendous potential and is certainly not a replacement for disciplinarians, but we cannot continue to sell young students into a mountain of debt as well as false expectations that can ruin the futures under the guise they have an equal footing to compete in the academic market place. I think it is inevitable with the continued creation of new knowledge that interdisciplinarians will become a vital part of universities; after all, boundaries grew very slowly over multiple millennia with the preponderance of disciplines coming about in the 20th century. So we either continue to expand the number of disciplines, sub disciplines, and sub-subdisciplines to the point they are unmanageable and become just so much gibberish fighting for fewer financial and career resources. But until that happens, I believe we have an ethical responsibility to make sure students who are engaging in, or considering enrolling in interdisciplinary or liberal studies programs, or even considering taking extracurricular courses designed to make them better team members, and especially students enrolling in interdisciplinary and liberal studies progras understand the reality of their limited possibilities. In short, my concern is not about educators but with students, both current and future.

        • As one who dwells in the academic Health Sciences and is a non-clinical interdisciplinarian, I can’t really speak to the situational concerns of interdisciplinary and liberal studies programs per se as these are not of my reality. But I can speak to the need and desire of biomedical and health sciences to be introduced constructs that provide roadmaps to interdisciplinary research and education. Sometimes it’s for the purpose of achieving interprofessional education and at other times it may be to be able to adequately conduct cross-disciplinary research. In both cases, those in the health professions lack the direction and core training at the undergraduate and even graduate levels that should bring them to be able to consider transdisciplinary competence in their careers as Pearce et al. are describing. This is why the offering here has such a high potential impact. It provides to an otherwise less prepared group of professions, untrained in cross-disciplinary, a roadmap to the seemingly complicated world of transdisciplinary thoughts and behaviors that allow them to adopt, albeit within their discipline-centric careers transdisciplinary constructs by which to reach beyond the boundaries of their health and research professions.


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