Viewpoint Education

Erase the borders

Exploring the ‘white space’ at the boundaries of disciplines has immeasurable benefits   | Photo Credit: Pixabay

Learning is about creating connections — within, across, outside, and beyond. Exploring the ‘white space’ at the boundaries of disciplines has immeasurable benefits. Few know that Florence Nightingale was also a math wizard or that Leonardo da Vinci was interested in math and accounting, and collaborated with Luca de Pacioli, who is considered as the father of accounting. Lewis Carroll was also a mathematician. Our imagination is limited by the disciplines and expertise we attribute to others and conditioned by disciplinary labels and talent tags. The research world is increasingly practising the idea of interdisciplinarity; whereas, in teaching, we are yet to traverse seamlessly across disciplines.

Un-disciplining knowledge

Knowledge is neither linear nor solid. The nature of human understanding itself is fluid, spiral and pervading. Attempts to compartmentalise knowledge into subjects and modules are for our own convenience.

Deep disciplinary understanding is the foundation to create a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary classroom. But, what do these words mean? Multidisciplinary classrooms are like fruit salads. It involves different disciplinary perspectives that can be distinguished from one another, just like we differentiate each fruit in salad. An interdisciplinary approach is like making smoothies. It integrates two or more disciplines so that their borders are marginal or merged completely.

For a student and teacher at any level, there are opportunities for a multidisciplinary approach in most subjects because it is not a method, but a mindset. So, linking the jigsaw puzzle across many modules, concepts and disciplines can be explored in teaching in many ways.

A theme-based approach is one method of making interdisciplinary teaching work. The chemistry of rain, atmospherics of rain, rain-water harvesting, poetry of rain and dancing in the rain can all come together if our students appreciate and internalise rain. Another is team teaching. Collaborating disciplines requires the faculty members to work together. Creating interdisciplinary teams within institutions is seen as an attempt towards this, but with mixed results.

Structuring the institution around areas of knowledge is yet another common approach. Many institutions in India use the term area instead of department. An area has no definite beginning or end. It acknowledges the fluidity of knowledge and interdisciplinary nature of reality. Forming schools and interdisciplinary centres is one example of this approach. Such centres are more into research .


Popular academia, however, maintains the myth that multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches work only for higher-level classes and selected subjects. What is worse is to insist on a bundle of formal disciplinary silos for research. The rigidity of departmental structures existing in schools, colleges and universities are a major hindrance for the poor practical adoption of interdisciplinary approaches. It is hard to create an interdisciplinary classroom in mono-disciplinary structures. Another problem is the recruitment pattern in India, which depends on disciplinary credentials at the cost of ignoring demonstrated ability or potential.

To be truly holistic

Many institutions use words like “holistic” and “all round” in their vision, mission and value statements. If we want to match the claims with evidence, there should be room for real learning and research, cutting across boundaries. Courses in Digital Humanities, Computational Sociology, Eco-economy, Inner-ecology, Creative Coding, Educational design and Social Engineering are no more fancy names, but cross-domain areas of knowledge and skills. Let us collectively find out the interface of our disciplines with the natural curiosity triggered by working on the edges of disciplines. Many top engineers have a good exposure to humanities and history but this is a matter of individual choice. Can’t we make it happen by design? Won’t our paediatricians be better if they can sing a song while examining a distressed non-cooperative little patient? Set aside the linear mind and enjoy the salads and smoothies of learning and teaching.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are personal.

G. Srinivas is the Additional Secretary and Salil S. is the Education Officer, with University Grants Commission.

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Printable version | Oct 31, 2020 6:53:23 AM |

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