Six lessons from students about transdisciplinary learning

By Irina Dallo, Jan Freihardt and Juanita von Rothkirch

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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.

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Scaffolding transdisciplinary contributions

By Roderick Lawrence

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Roderick Lawrence (biography)

What do we mean by “scaffolding” and how is it used in transdisciplinary research?

Scaffolding is a metaphor transferred from building construction and used in pedagogy and teaching methods since the 1970s to assist learning processes. This metaphor has also been applied to multi-stakeholder processes that require collective decision making about complex societal challenges including conflictual situations. In this context scaffolding is used in deliberative processes, identifying those constituents that require facilitation, and selecting the appropriate methods and tools to achieve desired outcomes.

Scaffolding is increasingly recognized as necessary to assist bridge building between people, especially in transdisciplinary research and project implementation about complex situations and persistent problems that have no simple solutions.

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Collaboration: From groan zone to growth zone

By Carrie Kappel

Carrie Kappel (biography)

What is the groan zone in collaboration? What can you do when you reach that point?

As researchers and practitioners engaged in transdisciplinary problem-solving, we know the value of diverse perspectives. We also know how common it is for groups to run into challenges when trying to learn from diverse ideas and come to consensus on creative solutions.

This challenging, often uncomfortable space, is called the groan zone. The term comes from Sam Kaner’s diamond model of participation shown in the figure below. After an initial period of divergent thinking, where diverse ideas are introduced, groups have to organize that information, focus on what’s most important, and make decisions in order to move forward into the phase of convergent thinking.

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Skilful conversations for integration

By Rebecca Freeth and Liz Clarke

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1. Rebecca Freeth (biography)
2. Liz Clarke (biography)

Interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle complex problems is challenging! In particular, interdisciplinary communication can be very difficult – how do we bridge the gulf of mutual incomprehension when we are working with people who think and talk so very differently from us? What skills are required when mutual incomprehension escalates into conflict, or thwarts decision making on important issues?

It is often at this point that collaborations lose momentum. In the absence of constructive or productive exchange, working relationships stagnate and people retreat to the places where they feel safest: their own disciplines, their offices, or the colleagues who are on their ‘side’. As a consequence, prospects for meaningful collaboration and integration dwindle.

One of the difficulties of interdisciplinary collaboration is being able to express the brilliant ideas swimming around in our own heads so that they can (a) be understood by others and (b) contribute to mutual insights and integration.

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Conditions for co-creation

By Gabriele Bammer

This is part of a series of occasional “synthesis blog posts” drawing together insights across blog posts on related topics.

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What is required for effective co-creation, especially between researchers and stakeholders? In particular, what contributes to a productive environment for co-creation? And what considerations are relevant for deciding who to involve?

Twelve blog posts which have addressed these issues are discussed. Bringing those insights together provides a richer picture of how to achieve effective co-creation.

What makes a productive environment for co-creation?

A good starting point is to be working in an environment and organizational culture that support co-creation and to have sufficient financial, personnel and other resources, as pointed out by Kit Macleod and Arnim Wiek.

Dialogue-based processes are often an important part of co-creation and they need to be established as a generative space, focused on synergy, not conflict.

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Using the arts and design to build student creative collaboration capacity

By Edgar Cardenas

Edgar Cardenas (biography)

How can undergraduate and graduate students be helped to build their interdisciplinary collaboration capacity? In particular, how do they build capacity between the arts and other disciplines?

In 2018, I co-facilitated the annual, 3-day Emerging Creatives Student Summit, an event for approximately 100 undergraduate and graduate students from 26 universities organized by the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities. Students’ majors ranged from the sciences, engineering, music, arts, and design.

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Co-producing research: Why we need to say what we mean, mean what we say, and learn as we go

By Bev J. Holmes

Bev J. Holmes (biography)

The co-production or co-creation of research is not new – action based research traditions can lay claim to a long history, but are those of us involved in co-production doing enough to understand what it means?

In their work on public involvement, Antoine Boivin and colleagues (2014) note there is such widespread support for the rhetoric of co-production that we may dismiss (I would add not even acknowledge) the tensions that arise when professionals and lay people work together. Co-production in health research is similar. We need to work harder to say what we mean, mean what we say, and learn as we go.

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Improving mutual consultation among key stakeholders to optimize the use of research evidence

By Allison Metz

Alison Metz
Allison Metz (biography)

Processes to support the uptake of research evidence call for each of the key stakeholders to consider the challenges faced by other key stakeholders in making good use of research evidence. When stakeholders have the opportunity to consider perspectives other than their own, they will generally have a broader understanding of the problem space, and, in turn a greater commitment to co-creating prototypes for improving research translation.

Let’s consider a real world example in New York City’s public child welfare system.

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Critical Back-Casting

By Gerald Midgley

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Gerald Midgley (biography)

How can we design new services or strategies when the participation of marginalized stakeholders is vital to ethicality? How can we liberate people’s creativity so we can move from incremental improvements to more fundamental change?

To answer these questions, I have brought together insights from Russ Ackoff and Werner Ulrich to develop a new method that I call Critical Back-Casting.

Russ Ackoff, writing in the 1980s, is critical of organizations that focus on incremental improvements without ever asking whether they are doing the right thing in the first place. Thus, they are at risk of continually ‘improving’ the wrong thing, when they would be better off going for a more radical redesign. Ackoff makes two far-reaching prescriptions to tackle this problem.

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Research team performance

By Jennifer E. Cross and Hannah Love

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Jennifer E. Cross (biography)

How can we improve the creativity and performance of research teams?

Recent studies on team performance have pointed out that the performance and creativity of teams has more to do with the social processes of interaction on teams, than on individual personality traits. Research on creativity and innovation in teams has found that there are three key predictors of team success:

  1. group membership,
  2. rules of engagement, and
  3. patterns of interaction.

Each of these three predictors can be influenced in order to improve the performance of teams, as the following examples show.

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Learning through modeling

By Kirsten Kainz

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Kirsten Kainz (biography)

How can co-creation communities use models – simple visual representations and/or sophisticated computer simulations – in ways that promote learning and improvement? Modeling techniques can serve to generate insights and correct misunderstandings. Are they equally as useful for fostering new learning and adaptation? Sterman (2006) argues that if new learning is to occur in complex systems then models must be subjected to testing. Model testing must, in turn, yield evidence that not only guides decision-making within the current model, but also feeds back evidence to improve existing models so that subsequent decisions can be based on new learning.

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Problem framing and co-creation

By Graeme Nicholas

graeme-nicholas
Graeme Nicholas (biography)

How can people with quite different ways of ‘seeing’ and thinking about a problem discover and negotiate these differences?

A key element of co-creation is joint problem definition. However, problem definition is likely to be a matter of perspective, or a matter of how each person involved ‘frames’ the problem. Differing frames are inevitable when participants bring their differing expertise and experience to a problem. Methods and processes to support co-creation, then, need to manage the coming together of people with differing ways of framing the problem, so participants can contribute to joint problem definition.

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