GP 2 Foster disciplinary and interdisciplinary ways of knowing, thinking and doing

In essence

Students learn the disciplinary codes and language for knowing, thinking and doing as they are inducted into their discipline, profession or vocation. When they engage in real world learning they have opportunities to develop and apply their knowing, thinking and doing abilities. When they collaborate with other disciplines to solve complex problems, they are also challenged to consider and work with alternative ways of knowing, thinking and doing.

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What you can do

Set up projects around complex real world or moral issues where students need to respond as professionals.

Involve students and staff from other disciplines in projects so students can work collaboratively in interdisciplinary teams to solve problems.

Use sustainability issues as a basis for challenging and applying disciplinary ways of thinking.

Incorporate opportunities for interdisciplinary learning and engagement. Collaborate with students and staff from other areas and share strategies like field trips, dance and movement, research projects, art, discussions, writing.

Provide opportunities such as service learning, community service, social action engagement or fieldwork where students are productively engaging with the community and applying their knowledge.

What it looks like

When students are inducted into their discipline, they are ‘educated’ or learn the disciplinary cognitive map or paradigm that shapes how the world is viewed and guides how to think and act (Davies & Devlin, 2007).

Working and learning in interdisciplinary contexts requires that each person is able to understand and be understood. Effective communication therefore is a key element of interdisciplinarity (Woods, 2007).

Jargon buster

Interdisciplinarity: when two or more disciplines combine their expertise to jointly address an area of common concern, resulting in an integration of the disciplinary contributions (Davies & Devlin, 2007).

Disciplinarity: when academic disciplines are autonomous, discrete areas of study and these independent academic communities rarely cooperate or coordinate their academic efforts (Davies & Devlin, 2007)

Service learning: pedagogy that encompasses teaching and civic engagement. It involves students undertaking a weekly service commitment in the community to apply what they are learning

Did you know?

It is ironic that the society requires graduates to think in creative interdisciplinary ways yet interdisciplinary learning collaborations are not common in universities (Eisen et al, 2009; Moslemi et al, 2009)

Students learn better if they experience pedagogical approaches that are both diverse and interactive (Eisen et al, 2009)

How it is applied in disciplines

Building and Environment: A doctoral program that incorporates interdisciplinary learning opportunities for students as preparation for becoming tomorrow’s scientists and environmental problem solvers is described. The program is comprised of a seminar series, workshop courses, a graduate student association (GSA), annual retreats, internal competitions for small research grants, and internship opportunities. As well as offering suggestions for implementing cross-disciplinary interactions, the article reports that students who have experienced the program found it worthwhile and beneficial for broadening perspectives and collaborating with others. Read more Moslemi et al (2009).

How it is applied in teaching contexts

Interdisciplinary courses: Two courses investigated the role of water in society and involved a range of disciplines including Environmental Studies, Biology, Literature, Philosophy and Music. The objectives were for students to think metacognitively, develop their analytical skills as well as raise their awareness as citizens. The learning activities were wide and varied and drawn from each discipline’s pedagogical approach. Upon completion of the courses, students perceived that they were better able to recognize connections between seemingly disparate disciplines and were able to use information from different fields to develop better, more comprehensive solutions. Read more Eisen… (2009).

What should you think about when encouraging contact, cooperation and reciprocity in your teaching

Answer Yes to these

Teaching philosophy: I believe in student-centred learning. I think about the contribution I am making to the development of students skills and capabilities for their future professional lives.

Pedagogies: Learning approaches that foster disciplinary and interdisciplinary ways of knowing, thinking and doing which characteristically emphasize constructivist learning suit my teaching.

Curriculum: There are specific learning outcomes I wish my students to have in my course.

Tools for learning: I can motivate my students to adopt strategies that foster disciplinary and interdisciplinary ways of knowing, thinking and doing. I can incorporate strategies that foster disciplinary and interdisciplinary ways knowing, thinking and doing into my course.

Commitment: I can identify a ‘disciplinary and interdisciplinary ways of knowing, thinking and doing’ champion who will support innovative practice.

Why is it important?

Students need to be able to use discipline-based knowledge in creative interdisciplinary ways in order to effectively work and engage in the 21st century as we are increasingly presented with complex societal issues (Eisen et al, 2009).

Future graduates will be required more and more to work in settings that involve multi-professional teams and to wisely deal with complex work, world and life challenges that straddle disciplines (Woods, 2007).

What is it and how does it support learning? What does recent research say?

Every discipline has its own sets of values, attitudes and ways of behaving which are expressed and reinforced within their academic communities as culture and knowledge. Students are socialized into these disciplinary ways of knowing, thinking and doing. They are subtly shaped into the ways that the discipline requires that they think and learn (Woods, 2007).

Traditionally, disciplines tend to offer particular pedagogical approaches and methods. Shulman (2005) proposes that professional disciplines have signature pedagogies which socialize students in the ways to think, perform and act with integrity in the profession. Signature pedagogies define what is known and how it is analyzed, critiqued and accepted (Shulman, 2005).

Interdisciplinarity requires students from different disciplines to collaborate and pool their disciplinary knowledge to find solutions to real world complex problems. Working and learning in such contexts of diverse specialists requires each is able to understand and be understood. A key component of interdisciplinarity therefore is ensuring that participants can effectively communicate with each other (Woods, 2007).

Interdisciplinary learning is a process to construct knowledge where students from different fields draw on their individual disciplinary approaches to solve a problem and develop an outcome that is more comprehensive than that afforded by one disciplinary solution (Eisen, et al, 2009)

Interdisciplinary learning collaborations in universities are generally uncommon occurrences, however, in responding to the need for graduates to be able to work in interdisciplinary contexts to solve complex problems more priority should be given to providing such learning opportunities for students (Moslemi et al, 2009).

Service learning or community engagement is beneficial to student learning for a number of reasons. It deepens intellectual content by drawing theory and practice together. It motivates students to engage academically through the experience of doing. It encourages students to become more independent in their learning. It contributes to students’ sense of civic and social responsibility (Davis, 2009).


Davies, M., & Devlin, M. (2007). Interdisciplinary higher education : implications for teaching and learning. Parkville Vic: University of Melbourne. Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Eisen, A., Hall, A., Lee, T. S., & Zupko, J. (2009). Teaching Water: Connecting across Disciplines and into Daily Life to Address Complex Societal Issues. College Teaching

Moslemi, J. M., Capps, K. A., Johnson, M. S., Maul, J., McIntyre, P. B., Melvin, A. M., et al. (2009). Training Tomorrow's Environmental Problem Solvers: An Integrative Approach to Graduate Education. BioScience, 59(6), 514-521.

Shulman, L. S. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the professions. Daedalus, 134(3), 52-59.

Woods, C. (2007). Researching and Developing Interdisciplinary Teaching: Towards a Conceptual Framework for Classroom Communication. Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education and Educational Planning, 54(6), 853-866.