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.

Structure matters: Real-world laboratories as a new type of large-scale research infrastructure

Community member post by Franziska Stelzer, Uwe Schneidewind, Karoline Augenstein and Matthias Wanner

What are real-world laboratories? How can we best grasp their transformative potential and their relationship to transdisciplinary projects and processes? Real-world laboratories are about more than knowledge integration and temporary interventions. They establish spaces for transformation and reflexive learning and are therefore best thought of as large-scale research infrastructure. How can we best get a handle on the structural dimensions of real-word laboratories?

What are real-world laboratories?

Real-world laboratories are a targeted set-up of a research “infrastructure“ or a “space“ in which scientific actors and actors from civil society cooperate in the joint production of knowledge in order to support a more sustainable development of society.

Although such a laboratory establishes a structure, most discussions about real-world laboratories focus on processes of co-design, co-production and co-evaluation of knowledge, as shown in the figure below. Surprisingly, the structural dimension has received little attention in the growing field of literature.

Overcoming structure as the blind spot

We want to raise awareness of the importance of the structural dimension of real-world laboratories, including physical infrastructure as well as interpretative schemes or social norms, as also shown in the figure below. A real-world laboratory can be understood as a structure for nurturing niche development, or a space for experimentation that interacts (and aims at changing) structural conditions at the regime level.

Apart from this theoretical perspective, we want to add a concrete “infrastructural” perspective, as well as a reflexive note on the role of science and researchers. Giddens’ use of the term ‘structure’ helps to emphasize that scientific activity is always based on rules (eg., rules of proper research and use of methods in different disciplines) and resources (eg., funding, laboratories, libraries).

The two key challenges of real-world laboratories are that:

  1. both scientists and civil society actors are involved in the process of knowledge production; and,
  2. knowledge production takes place in real-world environments instead of scientific laboratories.
Franziska Stelzer (biography)

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Uwe Schneidewind (biography)

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Karoline Augenstein (biography)

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Matthias Wanner (biography)

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The university campus as a transdisciplinary living laboratory

Community member post by Dena Fam, Abby Mellick Lopes, Alexandra Crosby and Katie Ross

How can transdisciplinary educators help students reflexively understand their position in the field of research? Often this means giving students the opportunity to go beyond being observers of social reality to experience themselves as potential agents of change.

To enable this opportunity, we developed a model for a ‘Transdisciplinary Living Lab’ (Fam et al., forthcoming). This builds on the concept of a collaborative test bed of innovative approaches to a problem or situation occurring in a ‘living’ social environment where end-users are involved. For us, the social environment is the university campus. We involved two universities in developing this model – the University of Technology Sydney and Western Sydney University. We aimed to help students explore food waste management systems on campus and to consider where the interventions they designed were situated within global concerns, planetary boundaries and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Transdisciplinary Living Lab was designed and delivered in three largely distinct, yet iterative phases, scaling from individual experiences to a global problem context. These phases of the living lab, which work to integrate personal and professional knowledge and practice, are also shown in the figure below:

1. Entering the living lab was the phase where students were introduced to collaborative teamwork processes, expectations of joint problem formulation and critical reflection on their own position within the system being explored: ‘digging where they stand’. This meant helping students consider their relationships with the food waste system as consumers of food and producers of waste, as well as their potential impact as designers of interventions in that system.

2. Transdisciplinary learning was the second phase where students were introduced to the concept of research as a process of system intervention, as well as skills for co-producing and integrating knowledge in collaboration with diverse partners in the food system. For the Transdisciplinary Living Lab at the University of Technology Sydney this meant listening to, questioning and collaborating with relevant stakeholders in the system to investigate historical and current approaches to the issue, and exploring precedents for dealing with food waste in other parts of the world. Central to this phase was ensuring the sharing of knowledge among the students as it was produced. This meant organising a publically accessible class blog that can be viewed at https://wealthfromwaste.wordpress.com/ and weekly debriefs and discussions on insights gained.

Dena Fam (biography)

Abby Mellick Lopes (biography)

Alexandra Crosby (biography)

Katie Ross (biography)

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Doing a transdisciplinary PhD? Four tips to convince the examiners about your data

Community member post by Jane Palmer, Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Jenny Kent

How can research writing best be crafted to present transdisciplinarity? How can doctoral candidates effectively communicate to examiners a clear understanding of ‘data’, what it is and how the thesis uses it convincingly?

The authors have all recently completed transdisciplinary doctorates in the field of sustainable futures and use this experience to highlight the challenges of crafting a convincing piece of research writing that also makes claims of transdisciplinarity (Palmer et al., 2018). We propose four strategies for working with data convincingly when undertaking transdisciplinary doctoral research.

1. Make the data visible and argue for the unique or special way in which the data will be used

Some of the comments received from our examiners reflected a sense of being provided with insufficient data, or that it was not convincing as data.

It is important that the nature of data for the purposes of the research is clearly defined, and presented in a way that demonstrates its value in the research process. Richer contextualization of the data can help to make clear its value. This can include drawing attention to the remoteness of the field location, the rare access gained to the participants, and/or the unusual or special qualities of the data that make an original contribution to knowledge.

In these and other cases, it may be important to explain how a particular kind of data can valuably inform an argument qualitatively without reference to minimum quantitative thresholds. This is particularly relevant where a transdisciplinary doctoral candidate is crossing between physical/natural science, humanities and social science disciplines.

2. Be creative and explore the possibilities enabled by a broad interpretation of ‘data’

The advantage conferred on the candidate in taking a transdisciplinary approach needs to be made evident to the examiners, especially where there may appear to have been an absorption of the ‘data’ in the wider synthesizing narratives that are typical of transdisciplinary writing.

Adopting more creative writing techniques may help the examiner both to see the data, and to see the research as valuable. Transdisciplinary doctoral candidates may, given the complex feat of communication this requires, find it useful to seek training in creative writing or science communication skills.

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Jane Palmer (biography)

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Dena Fam (biography)

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Tanzi Smith (biography)

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Jenny Kent (biography)

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Ten essentials for more impactful and integrated research on transformations

Community member post by Ioan Fazey

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Ioan Fazey (biography)

What can we learn when we bring together different insights from the rich and diverse traditions of action-oriented research? Will this help us more effectively understand and navigate our way through a world of change to ensure knowledge production contributes more directly to societal needs?

In a recent publication (Fazey et al., 2018), we explored the critical question of how to develop innovative, transformative solutions and knowledge about how to implement them. Addressing these questions requires much more engagement with more practical forms of knowledge, as well as learning from action and change in much more direct ways than currently occurs in academia. It is like learning to ride a bicycle, which can’t be done just by watching a powerpoint presentation, and which requires learning by “getting hands dirty” and by falling off and starting again. Continue reading

What can action research and transdisciplinarity learn from each other?

Community member post by Danilo R. Streck

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Danilo R. Streck (biography)

A man raises his hand and brings up the following issue: “Our community is constantly affected by terrible floods that not only destroy our houses, but are the cause of sicknesses of our children.” This statement—in the midst of a participatory budget meeting in South Brazil—raised issues concerning the deforestation of riverbanks, the deficient sewage system, contested land ownership and occupation, among others.

Our research group is primarily interested in citizenship education and in supporting it through studying what makes learning possible (pedagogical mediation) within discussions about the allocation of resources for the public budget. Stories like this one remind us of the limits of a simplistic approach to understanding citizenship. In this case, citizenship and citizenship education was clearly related to health, to ecology, to urban planning, to farming, among other fields of acting and knowing.

Action research, broadly understood as collective (self) reflection in action within situations that one wants to change, is intrinsically an exercise of disciplinary transgressions. Continue reading