NUS’ Focus on Interdisciplinary Education – A Top-down Initiative That Must Join With A Bottom-up Ethos

Nina POWELL
Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (FASS)

Nina reflects on upcoming plans by NUS to foster interdisciplinary higher education, including how it presents an opportunity for educators to cultivate the right interdisciplinary educational practices on the ground which would nurture critically reflective and engaged students.

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In September 2020, the National University of Singapore (NUS) released its plans to form a virtual college of Humanities and Sciences—an effort to foster interdisciplinary higher education to meet the needs of employers who are putting greater emphasis on critical thinking, adaptability and novel problem-solving (NUS plans to form the College of Humanities and Sciences next year, 2020; Preliminary consultations begin on proposed College of Humanities and Sciences, 2020). While NUS’ initiative is largely top-down and structural, we should have conversations from the ground-up about fostering not just the outline, but the ethos, of interdisciplinary education.

Bringing together two faculties does not magically result in an interdisciplinary education

Artificially pulling disciplines together is not interdisciplinary. It starts from the way we introduce students to concepts. The driving ethos of interdisciplinary education is the recognition that unwavering facts and truths about the world are hard to come by, and especially hard to come by if your subject focus is narrow. This principle can be counter-intuitive if we think intelligence comes from having answers because an interdisciplinary ethos promotes continued questioning. An interdisciplinary ethos is about fostering a healthy skepticism and uncertainty around any one discipline providing the answer. The basis for interdisciplinary education centres around the understanding that we cannot rely on one linear means for understanding complex subject matter. Instead, we must look beyond immediate answers to context-dependent questions.

This boils down to one key difference to a single-discipline approach—don’t teach, educate. This means we have to push students away from answers, fact-finding and shallow thinking, and towards depth and continued questioning. One thing NUS must be cognisant of in this approach is to not dilute education through an interdisciplinary set-up where there are fewer modules in one subject, but rather to use this as an opportunity to cultivate the right interdisciplinary practices on the ground so that exposure to more content does not end up being exposure at the surface level.

Interdisciplinary education is about embracing uncertainty in a push towards continued thinking; certainty is where thinking goes to die. It is an opportunity to stand outside of the exigencies for right and wrong answers, in a place of questioning. To do this, we can highlight the limitations of one scholarly approach only to point to the merits of another. The sciences are particularly ripe for an interdisciplinary ethos because there is a tendency to rest on the scholarly laurels of evidence. However, that is not scientific—a scientific approach is one that is constantly revising and reconsidering any approach in light of moving goal posts and evolving contexts. Interdisciplinary approaches in the classroom allow us to bring students difficult, even unanswerable, questions in order to motivate their creativity in thinking outside of orthodoxy and “the obvious”. That is where truly novel problem-solving can be nourished.

How do we achieve this from the ground up?

Educators will have to embrace this ethos if this interdisciplinary setup is going take form to truly produce the kind of critically engaged student we want to graduate from this programme. However, that does not mean simply pairing courses in science and humanities, giving students broader choices in these two areas, or creating integrated modules. It means adopting an educating approach where we ditch the need for simple answers and instead embrace a culture of unknowing that leads to transformative learning.

We should not place ourselves at the front of the classroom as the knowers of answers whose job it is to transfer those answers to students. Instead, we have to allow students to confront the inherent limitations of a single discipline by bringing them more questions from other disciplines that make finding a simple, straightforward answer impossible. The goal is to create a space for divergent ideas to grow; a space for students to think, rethink, and uncover novel solutions. It is about providing students a path that leads to deeper questioning rather than simple conclusions.

Conclusion

Interdisciplinary education has value, but it is derived from the educational principles that we instill on the ground—in our modules and educational philosophy. We must be cautious in branding education as interdisciplinary if it only involves an artificial blending of different disciplines. The primary principle of interdisciplinary education lies in cultivating an appreciation for uncertainty in a way that motivates inquiry towards other possibilities and explanations—a holistic and context-based approach to understanding something. As educators, this means bringing students more questions, and fewer answers.

 

Nina POWELL is a Senior Lecturer in the NUS Department of Psychology and has been teaching in NUS since 2013. Her research focuses on judgment, certainty and decision-making in children and adults, both in the context of moral decision-making and education. She teaches introductory psychology modules (PL1101E “Introduction to Psychology” and PL3234 “Developmental Psychology”) and upper-level seminar modules on Moral Psychology and Historical Controversies in Psychology. She is also Deputy Director of Undergraduate Studies in Psychology, a member of CAFÉ (Career Advancement for FASS Educators), and the co-founder of MADE in Psych (Mentoring and Demystifying Education in Psychology).

Nina can be reached at nina.powell@nus.edu.sg.

References

NUS plans to form College of Humanities and Sciences next year. (2020, September 22). CNA. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/nus-proposed-college-humanities-sciences-consultations-fass-fos-13134188

Preliminary consultations begin on proposed College of Humanities and Sciences. (2020, September 22). NUS News. https://news.nus.edu.sg/preliminary-consultations-begin-on-proposed-college-of-humanities-and-sciences/