Six lessons from students about transdisciplinary learning

By Irina Dallo, Jan Freihardt and Juanita von Rothkirch

1. Irina Dallo (biography)
2. Jan Freihardt (biography)
3. Juanita von Rothkirch (biography)

What is an effective way of providing students with practical experience in stakeholder engagement? How can students learn to communicate and engage with community members on a transdisciplinary project, as well as how to create a space for those community members to reflect on their daily lives through interactions and discussions with the student outsiders? What makes it possible for students to broaden their horizons and to acquire new competences and skills?

We present our reflections on how the Winter School 2020 “Science meets Practice” run by ETH Zürich successfully contributed to our transdisciplinary learning process. We suggest there are six key lessons for those who want to design a successful course.

Lesson 1: A diverse and motivated group

A key element in fostering the transdisciplinary learning process was the diversity of the participant cohort. Not only were we from a variety of different disciplines and at different career stages, but we were also from different countries with different cultures. This variety enabled us to reflect about and approach the transdisciplinary process from different angles.

How can someone from Australia with a background in traditional Chinese medicine relate to transdisciplinarity? And how is this different for someone working on risk communication relating to geothermal power plants in Chile? Having participants from different backgrounds also stimulated reflection on the influence of elements that might seem obvious for Swiss participants, such as direct democratic processes in the community, that are not present in other countries.

This diversity resulted in stimulating discussions not only during the workshops, but also, and maybe more importantly, during coffee and lunch breaks.

Lesson 2: A safe environment to explore stakeholder interactions

The winter school provided an environment in which we could safely explore how interactions between researchers and community members might develop. For instance, we found it surprising and eye-opening to learn how important informal interactions are for building trust.

Many descriptions of transdisciplinary tools and research methods put a lot of emphasis on the methods themselves and on how to apply them. Little is usually said about the fundamental importance of trust for the method to work. Without trust, most methods are doomed to fail – both in the transdisciplinary realm, but likewise for ‘conventional’ methods like interviews or focus group discussions.

We benefited from the longstanding relationship between the facilitators of the winter school and the communities we interacted with. Over the years, a solid basis of trust had been established.

Lesson 3: Link theory and practice

We learnt about the theoretical background of transdisciplinary methods (perspective of an expert), experienced the methods ourselves (perspective of a participant) and learnt how to choose an appropriate transdisciplinary method (perspective of a practitioner).

First, we benefited from theoretical inputs by scientific experts and experienced practitioners followed by interactions with council members of Wislikofen (the site of the winter school) and the surrounding communities.

We then applied a transdisciplinary method. For example, we drew a rich picture of the current status of the community in order to understand the challenges they are dealing with.

Towards the end of the winter school, we organized a workshop for the residents to address the problem statements we had identified. We thereby learnt which transdisciplinary methods fit a certain context and addressed the issues we were interested in.

Lesson 4: Reflection exercises

The learning process was reinforced by a ritual of reflection. Throughout the day, we recorded our personal insights in a notebook, namely the ‘aha’ moments we experienced. Before going to bed, we reviewed our notes, reflected on them, and wrote an entry in a virtual journal, which was read by our facilitators.

The next morning, we sat in a circle with our colleagues and shared some of the previous day’s insights, putting together the lessons we acquired through lectures, interactions with the community and group work.

The different formats for reflection (private, semi-private and public) helped us reiterate and slowly digest the daily highlights. Allocating time in the schedule for individual reflection provided the space to focus on particular topics of interest, thus adjusting the learning process to our own needs. At the same time, listening to the experiences of others helped us appreciate the events from different perspectives and broaden the spectrum of topics covered.

Lesson 5: Flexible facilitation

We highlight three key factors for good facilitation:

  1. not only the facilitators’ professional expertise, but also their soft skills allowed each participant – independently of his/her background – to get input for his/her research.
  2. we had structured engagement spaces as well as informal opportunities (eg., meals, evening drinks) to further discuss personally relevant issues.
  3. each year a different group of students attends the winter school and thus the facilitators need skills in adapting flexibly to new group dynamics.

Lesson 6: Transdisciplinary attitude

We were taught to recognize local stakeholders as the experts of their place. This is unlike the attitude that prevails in much of the science community, where researchers are seen as experts who fill the knowledge gaps of lay people.

The humble approach of the facilitators to the community was a good example of how to live a transdisciplinary attitude. We usually saw them listening rather than talking, and community members were more often on stage than the facilitators. The facilitators promoted informal spaces for interaction with community members, enabling casual exchange.

A prerequisite for our mindset shift was our ability to leave the comfort zone of academic environments. Exposing ourselves to the community interactions, often across language barriers, was challenging. Yet it was the way to learn that creating bridges with society requires a modest, tolerant and curious attitude.

Concluding question

From the perspective of a learner, instructor or practitioner, what is your experience with transdisciplinary learning processes and what factors do you think make them a success?

To find out more:
Dallo, I., Freihardt, J., Remke, S., von Rothkirch, J. and Ruizpalacios, B. (2020). Winter School 2020 – The next step is the mental transition to the new municipality of Zurzach. Information brochure resulting from the Winter School 2020, USYSTdLab, Zürich, Switzerland. Available online. (PDF 5.3MB).

Biography: Irina Dallo is a doctoral student at the Swiss Seismological Service and the Transdisciplinarity Lab at ETH Zürich in Switzerland. The focus of her PhD is how to best communicate earthquake information in a multi-hazard context. Her approach is user-centred and iterative, ie., involving close collaboration with the authorities and the public.

Biography: Jan Freihardt is a doctoral student in the group of International Political Economy and Environmental Politics at ETH Zürich, Switzerland, studying environmental migration in Bangladesh. In addition, he is working on a co-authored book aimed at introducing students and early-career researchers to the discourse around transformative science and transdisciplinarity.

Biography: Juanita von Rothkirch is a masters student in environmental sciences at ETH Zürich in Switzerland. She is interested in building bridges between policy makers and society. She has recently developed her research at the Transdisciplinarity Lab on siting issues of carbon capture and storage technologies.

17 thoughts on “Six lessons from students about transdisciplinary learning”

  1. Hi Juanita, yes, definitely! I would say that the most transformative and profoundly TD processes I have been a part of have been when the ‘stakeholders’ are just as much an integral part of the research team, so that the process feels less like a researchers/locals dichotomy but a group of passionate people working together to inquire for systemic change in a place.

    The ignorance mapping is used in a two-week course on creative methods for problem solving. In this particular summer school of the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation, the students are working in groups of 6 (and come from all of the 25 disciplines across the UTS Bachelors programs) to work towards creating interventions in wicked socio-natural problematiques of their own choosing. The ignorance mapping method is, on one hand, used as a way to stimulate dialogue across diverse disciplines so students can see their collective strength. It can then can also be used to map how their knowledge is changing as they progress through other methods of inquiry into their problematique. But as well at a more philosophical level, this process creates comfort with, and the ability to see value in, dialogues that admit to our ignorance. Once we are able to freely acknowledge our own areas of ignorance, we are more readily able to learn collectively with and from each other in a transdisciplinary way. But I am sure there are other ways to experiment with this process, for example, even at a personal level to strengthen one’s own reflexivity. Maybe I’ll try this week for one of my own projects to see what insights emerge 🙂

  2. Dear Irina, Jan and Juanita,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences from being part of a transdisciplinary research course. I cannot agree more with your reflections, especially with lesson 2, that building trust is a fundamental requirement to work in a transdisciplinary research setting. Teaching transdisciplinarity is a challenge when only taught in class rooms. I think transdsciplinary research courses should always be very practical and involve non-academic actors. However, this entails a lot organizational challenges for students, teachers, and non-acdemic actors. I would like to know if you found this course more challenging, time consuming or something else in comparison to other courses. Was ist more difficult, complex, time consuming, or confusing?

    Best, David

    • Thanks for your questions, David.

      I wouldn’t say the course was difficult, in the classical sense of the word. It was definitely different from normal courses and maybe confusing sometimes. I think that the fact that there was no external evaluation made some of us insecure about whether we were learning “the right thing”. But at the same time, the goals were clear, and it was a good opportunity to steer our learning processes according to our individual interests. Some of the theoretical concepts of Td can also be confusing at first but we didn’t go deeply into them.

      About the time consumption: We spent two weeks together, so it’s hard to compare the Winter School to normal courses. However, everything was organized for us (food and stay), so we could really immerse in the experience. Several breaks during the day, alone time in the evenings, and self-organized activities (walks, meditation, free dancing…) made the course feel well balanced in terms of time consumption. 

  3. Thanks Irina, Jan, and Juanita for sharing your lessons learned after participating as graduate students in the Zurich Winter School 2020. I post my comments following your questions based on my experience as the organizer and teacher of graduate courses about interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity from 2002 at the University of Geneva, and as founding Director of ongoing life-long learning programs on implementing sustainability from 2003. My comments follow your six key lessons and they are made with some links to my current blog ‘Scaffolding transdisciplinary projects’ (

    Lesson 1: Diverse and motivated group
    I share your experience as graduate students in my role as an educator. I agree that cultural, ethnic and disciplinary diversity can enrich the experience of all participants in courses and workshops, provided that differences are treated positively and not as a hindrance. This is an important function of scaffolding transdisciplinary projects with participants from different backgrounds. I also think that the number of participants is relevant. The Zurich Winter School had 16 participants which is a good number; based on my experience, 10 is too small, and more than 30 becomes difficult to facilitate. Apart from informal discussion places and times that enable interactions between participants (you mentioned), let me add that these times should be anticipated in advance by the organizers (e.g. not a 10 minute break between sessions but a 30 minute (or more) period that can enable discussions.

    Lesson 2: A safe environment to explore stakeholder interactions
    I agree that tools and methods have both strengths and limitations (see my blog). Beyond the importance of trust (you mentioned), it is crucial to select the appropriate tools and methods according to the profile of the participants and the subject they consider: How do we engage resident foreigners in Switzerland who may not speak Swiss German dialect? This is crucial when dealing with local community or neighbourhood projects. Your positive experience with the Rich Picture technique is also shared and I think visual representations and simulations are examples of scaffolding (see my blog). They are helpful for relational thinking which remains an obstacle for both inter- and transdisciplinary projects.

    Lesson 3: Linking theory and practice
    This lesson concerns linking knowledge and practice (the terms used in my recent book) or ‘what is known’ with ‘what we do’. In my opinion, it denotes more than ‘theory’ because all types of knowledge and ways of knowing should be accounted for, not only specialized, theoretical knowledge. The importance of contextual understanding that you allude to is grounded in experiential knowledge, like the tacit knowledge of indigenous populations and local communities, that can be transmitted by residents from one generation to the next. I appreciate the know-how of professionals in life-long training programs and enjoy learning from their ‘knowing-in practice’.

    Lesson 4: Reflection experience
    My experience is that time allocated specifically for reflection is nearly always too restricted during teaching courses and research projects too. I also asked graduate students to keep a log book because this is recognised as a pedagogical tool for personal reflection and learning outside the time of courses. Regarding research, transdisciplinary inquiry is repeatedly challenged because it requires more time than conventional research projects. Research grants rarely fund time allocated specifically for reflection so this is an example of missing but much needed scaffolding.

    Lesson 5: Flexible facilitation
    The three factors you noted are quite general. I recommend that you read Thomas Jordan’s (2014) article described in my current blog, and consider whether his contribution corresponds with your experience. I have explained in my blog that facilitation is different from, and complementary to conventional project management.

    Lesson 6: Transdisciplinary attitude
    Perhaps this is the most important of your six lessons because it can influence all others. Moreover, it is rare to find academic researchers with education and training for competences and skills in facilitation that include listening, synthesizing, negotiation skills, conflict resolution, and more, as Thomas Jordan explained.

    I hope these comments are helpful. I also hope that you continue your personal and shared experience in transdisciplinary inquiry because you are the next generation that will have to deal with complex societal challenges of all kinds that cannot be resolved easily.

    Further readings
    Jordan, T. (2014). Deliberative Methods for Complex Issues: A typology of functions that may need scaffolding, Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal 13, 50-71.

    • Thanks Roderick for commenting all our lessons learnt and adding further insights. I totally agree with you that the sixth lesson is probably the most important one because a similar TD mindset facilitates the learning and experience exchange very much.

      Thanks also for the reference. The article by Thomas Jordan stresses some of the points we mentioned in our article but gives so many further insights. For all readers of the blog post, do also have a look at the article by Jordan.

      The three of us will for sure continue to do so . And we aim at motivating others of our generation to do transdisciplinary research too.

  4. Thank you, Machiel, for your comment. I can personally relate well to your experience that participants find reflection tasks tiresome: After the long and intense days of Winter School, I sometimes had to bring myself to work on the reflection. What helped for me to still do it was that our facilitators reminded us frequently of the value this reflection would have for our own learning process, and that they also stressed that we should invest no more than 3-5 minutes / that writing just a few sentences would be enough. So making the reflection task “smaller” definitely increased my motivation to accomplish it.

    Besides this private reflection moments, I really enjoyed the sharing of the previous day’s reflection moments each moment in the large group. This definitely helped to understand how others experienced the workshops and what stood out for them, thereby developing a “shared mental model of the project”, as you named it.

    In this round of sharing our experiences, also our facilitators contributed with their aha moments. Other than that, there was no “formal” evaluation of our reflections.

    I hope this helps, please let us know if you have further questions.

    • Thanks for describing your experience with it, Jan. I assume that the fact that you did not have to follow any specific rules or answer particular questions during the reflective writing exercise helped to make it ‘light’. Were the facilitators then aiming to help you as a group discover how the individual reflections together could help you as a team to discover your ‘shared mental model’ and perhaps also where some differences or even conflicts concerning that model could arise? E.g. when differences emerged about the eventual output or aim of the project, or when potential tensions about how (via what methods) best to get there could arise? Or were the facilitators more focused on fostering the team’s cohesion, using the reflections for social purposes mainly? Roderick Lawrence’s remark on his use of reflection exercises for students (via a personal journal) suggests that his focus in that case is particularly on individual learning, to mention another possible goal. How would you formulate reflection’s goals?

      • Dear Machiel, thanks for your response. I can obviously only speak from my perspective as a participant and would assume that our facilitators would answer your question about the goals of the reflection exercises slightly differently. For me, the reflection exercises provided a space where I could realize that in such a special Td course, the actual key aha-moments are not necessarily related to theoretical inputs as it might be the case in other content-focussed courses. Many of our group’s aha moments were related to “informal” situations. Becoming aware of this was an important learning in itself and also links to several points we made in the blog post – for instance, that the setting as well as trusting relationships are important.

        What came to my mind when you write about differences/conflicts concerning the mental model: We as participants split into four groups and each group drew a rich picture of the community situation after we had some first interactions with the community. Thereby, it became very clear how differently the four groups had perceived the community, even though we are “like-minded” people. I would not say that this led to any conflicts, but it for sure enriched each group’s perspective to see and discuss the others’ rich pictures.

        • Dear Jan, thanks for this further response and illustration with its useful exercise. I appreciate your reference to informal situations generating some aha-moments: when we’re academically off-guard, perhaps? I agree that different visualized or narrated accounts of what the problem situation appears to be can in themselves already help to show differences in understanding and appreciation of that situation. Even ‘like-minded’ people, as you say, generate very different perspectives on what otherwise could have been seen as a straightforward, unambiguous situation. The picture of the group of scientists in the dark room investigating the elephant comes to mind. Obviously, the challenge should be to compose a more comprehensive picture by integrating the non-exclusive pictures.

          • Yes, I agree that the integration of the pictures would have been a worthwhile endeavor. In the setting of the winter school, however, the four groups continued with their respective pictures (after exchanging and hence further developing their pictures) to develop four different activities for our final community event. The integration happened subsequently in combining these four activities into an overall concept for the evening together with the community members.

  5. Thanks for this enjoyable read with useful ‘inside information’ on the learners’ perspective. I was intrigued by the scheduled time for individual reflection, which then moved to a semi-public and open discussion of those reflections. Having written a blog on the value of metacognition and reflection for inter- and transdisciplinary teams, I am also aware of the fact that most participants find such reflection tasks tiresome and a burden while often doubting the value of it. Furthermore, reflecting upon implicit assumptions or individual strengths and weaknesses as team member is not always an easy task, which is why different methods have been developed for it. Can you tell somewhat more about what worked here for you, and what not? How did it contribute to your developing a shared/joint mental model of the project and shaping you into transdisicplinary team members? Finally, were your reflections somehow assessed by your supervisors, as well?

  6. Thank you Irina and Juanita for those terrific examples. As you say, the trigger for an “aha” moment is different for everyone and thus having a large repository of techniques is important. I sincerely appreciate all your specific examples – not just the description of the experience/activity but the process of your own changing perspective. I agree that physically being with colleagues and stakeholders informally makes a huge difference. Sadly this is so much more difficult during COVID. Thank you again and I look forward to more “aha” stories from others.

  7. Thanks Caryn Anderson for your reflections on our lessons learnt. We totally agree that the aha-moments are a key to facilitate TD learning.

    Beside the lessons learnt described in our blog post, we appreciated that every evening we received time to write down our aha moments of the day. These five to ten minutes every evening helped us to review-pass the entire day and reflect on what we actually have learnt. Additionally, the social interaction with the residents outside the Winter School setting was decisive as well. I (Irina), for example, went jogging every second morning before the lectures and I twice met a person that I got to know during an organized meeting with the residents of Wislikofen. He told me lots of special things about the landscape, his house and neighbors and I got to know Wislikofen from a completely new side. The nice thing is that I still have contact with the 80-year-old gentleman. So, the fact that we stayed and slept there was useful and decisive to get to know Wislikofen and its residents and to understand the challenges they are currently facing.

    We would appreciate if other TD learners would share their aha moments.

  8. Thank you for this very helpful insight from the learner perspective. I am involved in teaching, guiding, and mentoring faculty in building competency in interdisciplinary / transdisciplinary research for complex societal and environmental problems. I am happy to see that many of the techniques we are using are actually valuable to learners.

    I am very curious to know more about any specific techniques you have found to be helpful in assisting learners to grasp what are often abstract concepts and very new ways of thinking.

    In many ways, transdisciplinary research is a paradigm shift in thinking about research and problem-solving. It often requires stimulating a “gestalt” or “epiphany”/”Aha!” moment in learners. Many of the techniques described in your 6 lessons can help with this (e.g., linking theory & practice, reflection), but sometimes the “old school” thinking is so embedded that even these activities cannot break through. If you have any additional thoughts on successful strategies that helped you or your colleagues break through a comprehension barrier on a specific concept, I would be especially grateful to hear them.

    Metaphors are dangerous but can sometimes be useful. Fellow students who have “figured it out” more recently than instructors can often provide more useful mentoring to students who are still struggling. Sometimes it requires a dedicated Socratic method of questioning the learner to identify where the fundamental logic or world view block is. Have you witnessed or experienced other successful strategies? Descriptions of your own “aha!” moments would be very helpful.

    Thank you again for sharing your insight from the learner perspective.

    • Dear Caryn, thanks a lot for your interesting question.

      Many different techniques allowed us to break through old school thinking. However, the changes that occured in our mental models and the activities that generated them varied from person to person. I will share here some activities and methods that changed my way of thinking or helped me internalize some abstract concepts.

      An activity which changed my way of thinking about the roles of researchers and local stakeholders was a Fishbowl discussion with our facilitators. The Fishbowl gave participants the opportunity to ask various questions about what transdisciplinarity is. One of my ‘aha’ moments came from understanding the problems of the concept of expertise, which is often associated with content instead of processes. That realisation flipped my understanding of my role as a researcher in the community and highlighted the need of empowering local stakeholders, as experts of their place, to reflect and act on their local processes. The format of the Fishbowl allowed us to discuss out-of-the box questions and to observe the critical attitude of our facilitators regarding the impact of Td processes.

      We used the Rich Picture technique in small groups to build a representation of the local elements, actors and issues. This technique made clear the differences in the mental models of different participants and the richer understanding of the system obtained by bringing different visions together. My appreciation for working with others in putting together the pieces of the system was enhanced by a previous talk by our main facilitator on mental models and joint problem framing. This moment made it very clear to me why I needed a diverse group of people to understand and work on complex issues.

      We applied Design Thinking methods to get information about the system, identify specific issues, and brainstorm activities in which local stakeholders would explore their community’s issues. The empathizing phase of Design Thinking has, in my view, the magic of showing how rich and accessible the knowledge of people is. It also shows the power of collaboration with other participants to identify diverse issues and come up with creative ideas on how to move forward.

      Finally, we applied the “Ten Reflective Steps for Rendering Research Societally Relevant” (Pohl, Krutli & Stauffacher, 2017) to our individual research projects. This was a way to reflect on the assumptions we make about the practical value of our research. With very simple questions I identified some flawed connections I was making between my research questions and its impact on the real world. My ‘aha’ moment came from realising how often other researchers might be making the same mistake and how relatively simple it can be to reflect on the research-societal needs link.

      I hope I’m referring here to some of the abstract concepts and new ways of thinking you are referring to. Let us know if you want to discuss this topic further!

      • Excellent questions Caryn. And wonderful responses Juanita, I really appreciated your own story of learning.

        This question of who is the ‘expert’ is such an important concept to deconstruct in TD inquiry. The dominant paradigmatic notions of ‘expert’ strip power away from those who are experiencing the situation, so it was great to read about how the Fishbowl exercise helped uncover the implications of this ‘old’ understanding of ‘expert’ and the benefits of perceiving ‘experts’ differently. Were the diverse community members, stakeholders, etc also involved in the reflections, courses, workshops and developing the problem statements? Were any methods collaboratively created with the diverse community members for exploring and making meaning of the complex situation, or did the student groups primarily apply existing methods?

        Another experience that is curated in ‘learning TD by doing TD’ processes is the idea of ignorance mapping. In the old paradigm, knowledge is seen as something you have and ignorance is seen as something to conquer, rather than looking at their relationality, particularly in a group of people with diverse experiences and values. This meaning-making process includes reflections and discussions for mapping out the:

        Known knowns: what do we know we do not know?
        Unknown unknowns: what do we not know we do not know?
        False ‘truths’: what do we think we know but do not know?
        Tacit knowing: what do we do not know we know?
        What is taboo: what are we not supposed to know but would be helpful?
        What is denied or suppressed: What is too painful to know so is suppressed?

        This process is run the in TD undergraduate course at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) by Bem le Hunte. Cynthia Mitchell also recently brought to my attention Ann Kerwin’s (1983) article None Too Solid, which also explores, in a very beautiful way, the need for recognising ones own ignorance.

        This process it would seem also helps to lessen the power imbalances and hierarchical thinking inherent in the dominant notion of ‘expert’, and create space for humility, a very important characteristic in TD.

        Thank you so much Irina, Jan and Juanita for sharing your great reflections!

        • Thank you for your comment, Katie.

          About the interactions with local stakeholders: members of the government provided us with information about the municipalities, gave us feedback on our rich pictures and shared several informal spaces with us. While they provided us with the basic information, they did not directly participate in the phases of problem framing or methods design. The final event was a set of activities for local stakeholders to explore the identified issues, and, if pertinent, adjust the problem addressed. Would you say that, in your experience, defining problem statements together with local stakeholders is relevant to lessen power imbalances?

          Thank you also for sharing the idea of ignorance mapping in meaning-making processes. It sounds indeed relevant for flipping the concept of ‘expert’. Do you know how this set of questions is applied in the course of Bem le Hunte? Or do you have other examples of how it might be applied in a participatory process?


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