Enhancing mutual learning in developing a cross-disciplinary team

By Eric Schearer and Gemma Jiang

1. Eric Schearer (biography)
2. Gemma Jiang (biography)

How can newly forming cross-disciplinary teams develop effective strategies for working together?

We provide lessons from our experience preparing a cross-disciplinary research proposal for which we leant heavily on the mutual learning mindsets and norms which are the central elements for the Team Effectiveness Model for Science (Schwarz and Bennett, 2021). The principal investigator (Schearer) enlisted the help of a leadership consultant (Jiang).

Mutual learning mindsets and norms

As shown in the figure below, mutual learning comprises a mindset, composed of core values and assumptions, plus specific behaviors derived from the mindset that, together, are essential for effective working relationships.

Mutual learning stands in contrast to unilateral control, which tries to control the outcomes of interactions with others.

Mutual learning and unilateral control mindsets and norms (from Schwarz and Bennett, 2021)

Improving mutual learning in new or existing teams is centered on a four-phase intervention (also taken from the Team Effectiveness Model for Science). To cite Schwartz and Bennett (2021) the intervention phases are:

  1. “training to establish individual and shared ML [mutual learning] mindsets and skill sets;
  2. team developmental facilitation and individual coaching to broaden and deepen ML [mutual learning] skills and mindsets, including self-reflection and redesign;
  3. team effectiveness consultation to design mindsets, norms, structures, and processes for team science and team relationships; and
  4. team effectiveness evaluation for feedback and comprehensive reflection and redesign.”

We particularly adapted individual coaching, structure and process design, and developmental facilitation in our work together.

Individual coaching

Many principal investigators have a “lone ranger” mindset which values self-sufficiency. This mindset’s behaviors include reluctance to ask for help or ask questions, and stifling doubts. A “lone ranger” mindset can become a serious obstacle for effectively participating in and leading teams.

We used individual coaching to help the principal investigator shift from a “lone ranger” to a mutual learning mindset. In particular, during bi-weekly check-ins the consultant coached the principal investigator to recognize the epistemological and behavioral differences among team members and create enabling conditions for them to get along and contribute. This exemplifies the mutual learning values of curiosity and compassion. The consultant also provided the principal investigator with emotional support when he was discouraged and exhausted, especially when different team members were at varying stages of developing mutual learning mindsets.

Structure and process design

Some key questions that informed our design process were:

  • How should the meetings be structured and facilitated?
  • How to form subgroups and enable communication among subgroups?
  • How to involve a network of colleagues to review the proposal before submission?

In particular, we valued direct and accountable communication in the pre-submission review process, including:

  • finishing the draft one month before the due date and dedicating the last month to gathering and incorporating feedback.
  • enabling cross pollination of ideas by asking team members to choose proposal sections to review that were “outside of their comfort zones” but “relevant enough for them to make meaningful contributions”.
  • crowdsourcing reviewers from team members’ professional networks, and only asking them to review sections relevant to their expertise. This reduced the burden on reviewers, making them more likely to participate.

Developmental facilitation

Developmental facilitation was used to influence team culture by enabling teams to experience mutual learning mindsets and skills in their regular meetings. The consultant helped the team develop its own expertise, so that they could operate without her.

Key features included:

  • clarifying objectives and designing facilitation plans before any meeting.
  • spending time building relationships in addition to talking about science. Meetings began with a check-in activity with both personal prompts such as “how has your summer been” and business-relevant prompts such as “how do you feel about the current educational plan”. Checking-in strengthened the human elements of team functions, and advanced both working relationships and individual well-being. In appreciation, one team member, commented: “you gave us permission to just sit around and talk”.
  • using facilitation tools appropriate to the meeting objectives. For example, we used The Argument method described in an earlier blog post to choose between two images for the overall educational model. Enabling participatory decision-making exemplified mutual learning behaviors such as “share all relevant information” and “focus on interests, not positions”.

Reflections and Conclusions

Shifting mindsets towards mutual learning can benefit from an outside consultant to help a team learn to reflect on and analyze how they operate. Principal investigators may be reluctant to invite a consultant’s help and may benefit from asking questions such as:

  • Can I acknowledge the need for a consultant?
  • Can I imagine having a consultant as part of the team?
  • Is it going to turn out the way I wanted?

Even with the consultant on board, not everything went as expected. Establishing a new culture is a process. In our case, the new culture did not take root until a few months into the process. It took trust and interdependence between the principal investigator and consultant, and commitment from the whole team, to keep the process going.

What have your experiences been in developing a mutual learning culture in cross-disciplinary teams? Do you have additional lessons to share?

Schwarz, R. M. and Bennett, L. M. (2021). Team effectiveness model for science (TEMS): Using a mutual learning shared mindset to design, develop, and sustain science teams. Journal of Clinical and Translational Science, 5, e157: 1–6. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1017/cts.2021.824

Biography: Eric Schearer PhD is Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the Director of the Center for Human-Machine Systems at Cleveland State University and a Staff Scientist at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. He works to restore reaching and grasping function to people with paralyzed arms after spinal cord injury by developing control strategies for functional electrical stimulation neuroprotheses and wearable robots. He is a proponent of the Integrated Knowledge Translation Principles for conducting research in partnership with the disability community.

Biography: Gemma Jiang PhD is the Director of Organizational Innovation at the University of Pittsburgh in the USA. She applies complexity leadership theory, social network analysis and a suite of facilitation methods to enable transdisciplinary teams to converge upon solutions for challenges of societal importance.

7 thoughts on “Enhancing mutual learning in developing a cross-disciplinary team”

  1. In a public high school education setting, developing a cross-curricular or cross-disciplinary team is counter to typical school design. Content courses are typically siloed and despite numerous examples and research highlighting the benefits of student learning, few teachers and administrators are willing and able to implement the change.

    My current teaching partner and I have developed a complimentary and cohesive style. I can echo your implementation time frame because it took us many months to fully trust each other, define our roles, and work together efficiently. However, this is only slightly applicable because we are not cross-disciplinary. I imagine incorporating another discipline would require even more challenges and time.

    Time to implement, high-stakes effects, and teacher turnover are major concerns to developing a cross-curricular team. You mentioned your new culture took months to take root and start to flourish. The school “year” lasts only 10 months. In which time, teachers need to show measurable improvements on student learning. Should student, parent, and administrator expectations be managed during the team’s “root” phase? Do you have suggestions to manage expectations in such a high-stakes environment where students’ learning outcomes are directly affected by team cohesion? What ideas should be considered to increase teacher retention to avoid repeating the “root” implementation phase year after year?

    Thanks for your insights!

  2. This is really insightful – it sounds like being able to reflect on the process was helpful. The role of the PI (principal investigator) seems to be critical in fostering mutual learning among team members. From a transdisciplinary perspective, can a PI/team leader guide the group in mutual learning while also learning WITH the team and maintaining an egalitarian feel? Is it important for them to not be perceived as the one making all the decisions? If so, how? I’m also wondering about how the personal relationships among team members (trust, comradery, etc.) influences mutual learning.

    • These are thought provoking questions, Abby. Thanks for sharing them.

      The magic here is in putting together the processes that allow mutual learning to happen. The PI doesn’t act as a guide like we might think of a high school math teacher who knows geometry and is guiding novices in learning it. I as the PI never said, “Look, let me show you this chart of mutual learning mindsets. Let’s practice these instead of the unilateral control mindsets.” Instead the consultant structures meetings so that the PI can model mutual learning behaviors. The consultant offers coaching and lots of emotional support to make this happen. The fact that the PI is leaning with the team is a major factor in mutual learning. If the PI came across as an expert lecturing about team science, well, that would be modelling a unilateral control mindset.

      Is it important for the PI to not be perceived as the one making all the decisions? I want to define humility here as something like “knowing your place in the world”. This goes both ways — a person needs humility to recognize that being PI doesn’t make you an expert on all things, but humility also requires a PI to recognize that she/he is best equipped to handle certain things. I think the PI needs to be perceived as someone with humility. The consultant can help the PI to understand when to just make a decision and when and how to facilitate the team coming together to gather information and/or make a decision together. One way to do the latter is to use the argument method (https://i2insights.org/2021/11/30/improving-decision-making/).

      I think personal relationships are really important. I am married and have four young kids. There is a humility and vulnerability built into that. I simply don’t have control over what happens at home in any given day. I like to say “If I know your kid barfed on you this morning, I’m more likely to want to work with you.” When we are able to stop acting like we know everything and have it all figured out, it’s much easier to feel comfortable sharing new ideas that aren’t well thought out. Knowing about each other’s personal lives and the “barfed on shoes” that typically come along with them helps teams. A consultant can help you build fun and personal storytelling into a meeting to develop those personal relationships.

      • Eric, such beautiful reply. Reminded me why I enjoy working with you so much. It is about the whole person, not just the title such as researcher/the PI.

      • I agree with Gemma’s comment! Thanks for the response and clarification. I like your definition of humility and appreciate that there’s a place for personal storytelling. Looking forward to seeing what’s ahead for your team!

  3. Great comment, Cameron. Best of luck with your exploration. This program we worked on is specifically on developing new cross-disciplinary graduate programs that involve students in both teaching and research in cross-disciplinary contexts. I think you will enjoy a program like that if you enjoyed your classroom experience.

  4. Really interesting article! I really think cross-disciplinary learning is the future, but I had only thought of it through a classroom lens. It’s great to think about through the paradigm of research as well.


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