Interdisciplinarity in Practice: Considering the Role of Learning Design

Faculty in Malawi work together and listen.
 An exploration of practicing interdisciplinarity through the design of an international faculty development program.

By Trish Abalo

Often we think about interdisciplinarity theoretically. In the university context, discussions seem to focus on how to teach students to think across disciplines, or guidelines for faculty conducting research. But how does interdisciplinarity show up in practice for faculty and staff, at the intersections of teaching, learning, and research? I’m interested in interdisciplinarity at the intersections of innovation. That is, how does interdisciplinarity act within complicated and dynamic spaces, where new ways of thinking and acting are needed? While innovation has too easily become a buzzword, I recently had an inside look at how it can go right.

Many Moving Pieces

From September 2016-October 2017, I was hired to work as a university program aide at the MSU Global Center for Food Systems Innovation (GCFSI) by Dr. Kurt Richter. I supported a facilitation team from different departments at MSU and the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) with the “many moving pieces” of an international faculty development initiative, the Innovation Scholars Program (ISP).

The ISP lives at the intersections of international higher education, design thinking, and natural resource and environmental issues, and of course, the people in these spaces. It sought to collaboratively address complex needs of international faculty for teaching, research, and leadership. As a recent graduate from MSU trained in interdisciplinary studies, this immersive and dynamic environment excited me. With the ISP team, I found myself working within continuously evolving contexts. This called me to navigate complexity: to listen, learn, and contribute. I have found to engage in this context, practicing and picking up on interdisciplinarity in action has been crucial.

Interdisciplinarity in Practice

Using my lens as an emerging interdisciplinary social scientist (with emphasis on psychology, and specifically, breaking down information cognitively), I’ve found there are a number of ways interdisciplinarity emerges in practice (e.g. Repko, 2007; Spelt et. al, 2009; Boix Mansilla, 2010; Klein & Newell, 1997).

  1. Design thinking shares a codified way for crafting interdisciplinary common ground

Tuesday meant ISP meetings. During this time, our team talked and listened to each other, rather than at each other. This was crucial for interdisciplinarity to emerge. Drawing from cognitive focuses of interdisciplinarity, we know that listening, rather than waiting for the next person to finish speaking, can be difficult. I found design thinking shares a codified way for crafting interdisciplinary common ground, allowing us to share insights that can be commonly held. The combined empathetic and iterative nature of design thinking is prime for this. For me, our team’s program framework integrating design thinking to continuously create common ground, with each other, and with our partners, helped me to track discussions; anticipate document & tool design needs; and pull together multiple perspectives and insights, theories, and needs. It also helped me to better map design thinking to various stages of designing learning, throughout the program.

  1. International project management encourages cultural humility to check assumptions

The time difference between Lilongwe, Malawi (CAT) and Lansing, Michigan, USA (EST) is six hours. This was a time-saving (pun intended) axiom for me requiring I check my understanding of time, and proximally, team operations. Working with an international group, this was important because interdisciplinarity requires that teams organize across groups to check our commonly held assumptions. One of my team roles was to keep our schedule moving. At the different levels of operations, working with our facilitation team and different partners, I found checking assumptions catalyzed important, integrated insights, whether through arranging that extra Skype call to check in or taking a step back to evaluate if our goals recognized and honored the needs of faculty as individuals (within departmental, university, and national constraints).

  1. Creating experiential learning moments requires redefinition

One of the core structures we used in ISP was emphasizing experiential learning. This employed activities that use directly relevant models, such as the iceberg model for systems’ thinkers, or embedding Bloom’s Taxonomy throughout activities. This manifested best in the program’s cumulative, experiential field trip. This excursion to Malawi sought to support faculty and administrative leadership in community engaged scholarship, bringing together past learning throughout the program. This required that I redefine how I understood and integrated faculty’s different disciplinary needs. Redefinition makes it easier to apply two or more disciplinary perspectives to an issue or problem (Wolfe & Haynes, 2003). Planning this kind of learning activity inherently asked me to rethink how to understand instructional design and assessment. Whether that was in helping craft interview questions, or assisting with workbook design, I was pushed to visualize and integrate how different disciplinary concepts describe similar ideas relevant to making learning participatory.

Continuing to Emerge

In the ISP, I’ve found practicing interdisciplinarity is about recognizing context and people’s ability and willingness to create spaces for different directions. It’s about a willingness to break down assumptions, to check and think at the intersections of other’s thoughts and needs. The ISP was an innovative space for this that I will continue to learn from, long after the life of the program. For future reflections and projects, I believe there are implications for thinking about where interdisciplinary learning takes place (not just in the traditional classroom); how our understanding of interdisciplinarity arises from practice; and the importance of diverse perspectives in interpreting how it manifests. As we continue to work within contexts that complexity demands, let us look for those interdisciplinary moments and people who catalyze and sustain them. How is interdisciplinarity emerging in your work? Particularly for practitioners in team contexts, in and outside the classroom?





Boix Mansilla, V. (2010). Learning to synthesize: the development of interdisciplinary understanding. In R. Frodeman (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity. (pp 288-306.) Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press

Klein, J. T. and Newell, W.H. Advancing Interdisciplinary Studies. In J. Gaff and J. Ratcliff, J. (Eds.). (1997). Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Comprehensive Guide to Purposes, Structures, Practices, and Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Repko, A.F. (2007). Integrating Interdisciplinarity: How the theories of common ground and cognitive interdisciplinarity are informing the debate of interdisciplinary integration. Issues in Integrative Studies, 25, 1-31.

Spelt, E.J. et al. (2009). Teaching and Learning in Interdisciplinary Higher Education: A Systematic Review. Educational Psychology Review, 21, 365-378.

Wolfe,  C. & Haynes, C. (2003). Interdisciplinary writing assessment profiles. Issues in Integrative Studies, 21, 126-169.


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