MicroCPD: Interdisciplinary Teaching

This week Dr Julia Myatt discusses the new zeitgeist in higher education: interdisciplinarity

In 2015, the Higher Education Academy (HEA) published a paper looking at the provision of interdisciplinary teaching in higher education, opening with the question ‘Is interdisciplinarity the new zeitgeist for higher education (HE)?’ (Lyall et al., 2015). While the success of interdisciplinarity for research has long been acknowledged, its benefits at an undergraduate level have often been overlooked. Interdisciplinarity goes beyond simply acquiring the knowledge of multiple subjects and requires students to integrate different disciplines and methodologies to address large-scale challenges such as sustainable cities, climate change and gender equality. The requirement for students to be global citizens and be able to work in interdisciplinary teams is highly valued by employers and forms an important part of the skills they should develop at an undergraduate level.

The University of Birmingham already has great strengths in this field and developed one of the first truly interdisciplinary (as opposed to multidisciplinary) undergraduate programmes in the UK in 2013 (Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences). This programme enables students to not only develop their knowledge and skills in different disciplines but, crucially, provides them with the ability to integrate their understanding and work with students from different fields. Birmingham also has a track record in providing interdisciplinary opportunities for all of its students via avenues such as The Birmingham Project (where students address real word questions in interdisciplinary teams) and the development of the new Collaborative Teaching Laboratory which will see teams of students from across the sciences come together to solve problems.

In 2017 Power and Handley developed an HE Interdisciplinary Model (HIM) of best practice to address the problems of interdisciplinary teaching and enable its integration in UK HE institutions. They identified a series of enablers to facilitate this process including a collaborative culture and the provision of physical and mental thinking space to enable intellectual fusion (Power and Handley, 2017). To further enable this we have established an Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning group to provide a space to discuss topical issues within interdisciplinary teaching such as ‘is there a unique skill set we should be teaching?’ and also provide advice and feedback for projects within this area. For example, staff running a single session within a module or establishing new interdisciplinary modules or projects can share ideas and learn from others’ experiences. The presence of such a group should also enable us to combine our growing body of knowledge and expertise in this area of undergraduate teaching to facilitate the successful dissemination of good practice at a national and international level.

The Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning group had its first meeting in November 2017 and meets as a whole group once a semester, although breakout groups may meet more frequently. If you would like to join the group and be added to the Canvas page please email Julia Myatt (j.p.myatt@bham.ac.uk).

Further Reading

Higher Education Academy (2015): Interdisciplinary teaching in higher education: current and future challenges (https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/interdisciplinary-provision-higher-education-current-and-future-challenges).

Power, E.J. and Handley, J. (2017). A best-practice model for integrating interdisciplinarity into the higher education student experience. Studies in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2017.1389876