By ANU Transdisciplinarity Working Group
What expertise should everyone have in order to effectively play their role in tackling complex societal and environmental problems? Is there a framework that can help everyone develop rudimentary skills and provide a pathway to enhancing them as and when necessary?
We were charged with addressing these questions, not for everyone, but for all undergraduates at our university, The Australian National University (ANU). In particular, we were asked to ensure that all ANU graduates would be able to work with others to understand and creatively address amorphous and complex problems. More formally, this was described as proposing how undergraduates could develop the “Capability to Employ Discipline-based Knowledge in Transdisciplinary Problem Solving.”
What we came up with had to work for all students, ranging from those aiming to be government officials tackling climate change, to those seeking to be industrial chemists or art historians. Elements of the expertise had to be able to be taught in small classes by academics across the university. The aim was to support flexible, bottom up approaches within the range of different degree structures and constraints.
As a consequence, we developed the ANU framework for transdisciplinary problem solving, shown in the figure below.
We defined six characteristics of transdisciplinary problem solving, which are equivalent in importance, even though they differ markedly in breadth and content. They are:
Transdisciplinary problem solving is used to improve understanding for improved action. This change-oriented approach requires effective decision-making, which accommodates diverse perspectives and is based on a shared vision and research evidence. It also takes into account unknowns that might lead to adverse unintended consequences and nasty surprises. In addition, change orientation requires an appreciation of the complexity of change processes, such as the different roles for social movements, choice architecture and individual change.
Transdisciplinary problem solving is unnecessary for simple cause-and-effect-type problems, but is instead required for problems that are systemic, including where components are interdependent and interact, where feedback and leverage points come into play, where boundary-setting is crucial and where switching between views of wholes and parts is essential for understanding and action. Such systems may be, but are not necessarily, complex adaptive systems, which manifest additional properties, such as emergence.
The way problems manifest and options for addressing problems depend on historical, political, cultural and other big-picture circumstances.
Effectively understanding and addressing systemic and context-based problems requires recognition that there are multiple ways of seeing the world and that for any problem there will be different ways of understanding and responding to it.
Key to transdisciplinary problem solving is finding ways to engage a diverse array of expertise and perspectives. This includes, but is not restricted to, teamwork and stakeholder engagement. The ability to communicate effectively is critical.
Developing a shared approach to defining and acting on the problem requires synthesis of the diverse perspectives, while also recognising that there will generally be outliers that cannot be comfortably integrated.
Rather than developing an ideal form of transdisciplinary problem solving, we set out to provide a clear, straight-forward approach that would work across the university and be accessible to all students, allowing them to tailor coursework in transdisciplinary problem solving according to their disciplinary choices, personal interests and career aspirations.
The aim is not to produce transdisciplinary problem-solving experts, but rather to produce graduates who know enough about what is required for transdisciplinary problem solving to be able to effectively contribute their disciplinary and other expertise to it, and who can continue to build their ability to contribute over their careers. This requires a combination of content knowledge and practical experience in each characteristic, and there is a wide range of possible contexts and pedagogies for delivering these.
Of course, we recognised that some students will want to become experts who can lead transdisciplinary problem-solving efforts in their post-graduation work, and the framework caters for them as well by providing a foundation they can build on.
We wanted to provide similar flexibility to academics teaching courses, recognising that many already provide relevant educational experiences. The aim is for academics to be able to teach (or continue to teach) the framework characteristics they are best at and most interested in, in the context relevant to them, be it medicine, Pacific cultures or sustainability science. While courses need to locate themselves in the transdisciplinary problem-solving framework, they don’t need to teach all characteristics. Indeed, within any standard ANU course (with 130 hours of expected student workload) it is not feasible to cover all elements of transdisciplinary problem solving in any reasonable depth.
Again we aimed to make it possible for those educators who want to cover all facets of transdisciplinary problem solving in detail to do so, usually across courses.
Figuring out how to implement the framework at the ANU is still on-going, with the university-wide program scheduled to begin in 2025.
What do you think? Could the framework add value to your transdisciplinary education programs? Are there characteristics that you would add or remove? Do you cover the same characteristics with a different framing?
To find out more:
Bammer, G., Browne, C. A., Ballard, C., Lloyd, N., Kevan, A., Neales, N., Nurmikko-Fuller, T., Perera, S., Singhal, I. and van Kerkhoff, L. (2023). Setting parameters for developing undergraduate expertise in transdisciplinary problem solving at a university-wide scale: A case study. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 10: 208. (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-023-01709-8
This also provides the sources for the framework.
Open the combined image of all the authors (JPEG 256KB).
Top row (left to right): Gabriele Bammer, Chris A. Browne, Chris Ballard
Second row (left to right): Natalie Lloyd, Alison Kevan, Nicholas Neales, Terhi Nurmikko-Fuller
Last row (left to right): Sean Perera, Isha Singhal, Lorrae van Kerkhoff
Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. i2S provides theory and methods for tackling complex societal and environmental problems, especially for synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She chaired the working group undertaking the deliberations described above.
Biography: Chris A Browne PhD is senior lecturer (Curriculum Transformation) in the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at The Australian National University in Canberra. He is playing a core role in the implementation of the curriculum reform described above. His interest in transdisciplinary learning includes developing literacy of complex systems and systems thinking concepts with students from broad disciplinary backgrounds.
Biography: Chris Ballard PhD is associate professor, Pacific History in the School of Culture, History and Language at The Australian National University in Canberra. He is a chief investigator in the Evolution of Cultural Diversity Initiative, which promotes transdisciplinary research amongst archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, historians, geneticists, ecologists and philosophers working on the deep history of Melanesia.
Biography: Natalie Lloyd PhD is professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia. During the deliberations described above, she was associate professor and Associate Dean, Education, in the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science at The Australian National University in Canberra. Her interest in transdisciplinarity stems from designing and facilitating transdisciplinary curricular activities and award courses focussed on equipping learners as complex problem seekers and solvers.
Biography: Alison Kevan PhD is senior project manager (education) in the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), at The Australian National University in Canberra. She is playing a core role in the implementation of the curriculum reform described above. Her interest in transdisciplinarity stems from her background working across psychology (cognitive and development), neuroimaging, education and evaluation disciplines – in academic, government, private enterprise and not-for-profit environments.
Biography: Nicholas Neales is the manager of business and commercial operation of a private consulting and project management organisation headquartered in Canberra, Australia. During the deliberations described above, he was a final year International Security Studies student in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University in Canberra. In his current role, he supports a range of Australian Commonwealth government agencies to help develop their strategic direction, with a particular focus on the design and implementation of transdisciplinary skills in early career professionals.
Biography: Terhi Nurmikko-Fuller PhD is senior research fellow, Centre for Social Research & Methods, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences at The Australian National University in Canberra. She sees transdisciplinary research as the future of academia; her courses encourage students to work in diverse groups to tackle complex challenges from different perspectives.
Biography: Sean Perera PhD is the academic sub-dean of Graduate Studies Select, the multi-disciplinary postgraduate pathway at The Australian National University, Canberra, where he researches and teaches about communication across cultural and knowledge barriers. He investigated ANU staff and student perspectives about transdisciplinary curriculum content for the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), which informed the deliberations described above.
Biography: Isha Singhal was a Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Economics double degree student at The Australian National University in Canberra during the deliberations described above and was an educational representative of the ANU Student’s Association. She now holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and is currently completing a Bachelor’s degree in Science in chemistry and science communication. She is interested in the applications of transdisciplinary learning and how that can make for a more purposeful education.
Biography: Lorrae van Kerkhoff PhD is professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society at The Australian National University in Canberra. She convenes the Bachelor of Environment and Sustainability degree program and is Director of the ANU Institute for Water Futures. Her research focuses on knowledge governance and its relationship to social-ecological change.