Linking learning and research through transdisciplinary competences

Community member post 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: https://www.springer.com/us/book/9783319937427

References:
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.