The Value of Interdisciplinary Learning
The robot revolution, rapid technological innovations affecting our social life, and ethics entering the realm of science – all things changing our world faster than we can keep up. All things that make our environment a little more complicated. And with the complications that can happen as more sectors merge, we need to differentiate our ways of thinking. Reality requires looking at the world with more than one lens- we must learn to be interdisciplinary in our thinking.
Interdisciplinary thinking encourages the breakdown of boundaries between disciplines. It means recognizing that one discipline can learn from another, and can ultimately create new knowledge.
Luckily, the internet makes learning from different disciplines easy. Take a course on the blockchain if you feel like it. Watch a Youtube video on how the brain works or find research articles about any topic you desire. If you have a question, Google can help guide you towards an answer.
And given the wealth of information, we have access to, we can’t expect to become an expert in everything. Of course, some people decide to specialize in a specific topic – and they’re needed to help provide deeper insights and understanding to their fields. But because of the world’s complexity, we need to develop more generalists – people who are knowledgeable in several different fields, without a specific specialization.
Or, in the words of our podcast guest Liat Segal, “It’s really important to have both kinds of people, people that go…into widths and people that go into depths.” We need people who delve into topics and others who think across a variety of topics.
A New Way of Learning
You might be thinking that this way of thinking may lead to nowhere. That learning an overview of many fields isn’t the way to go. But Segal, and another guest of ours, Shimon Adaf, learned why horizontal thinking was important through their interdisciplinary master’s program at Tel Aviv University. While liberal arts schools are known for curriculums that expose students to classes beyond their major, this program took that idea one step further.
Tel Aviv University’s interdisciplinary program left things more open-ended and allowed students to explore what paths they wanted to take. Adaf even said that the program helped him create his own way of thinking, allowing him to develop his mental flexibility.
They aim to help students broaden their knowledge of various research methodologies so they can then apply them to a wider scope of disciplines. Students can balance their research interests with personal interests through the freedom to pick their courses across university departments – creating their own unique curriculums. They are encouraged to take courses in mathematics, neuroscience, art, physics, poetry, etc. Segal, for example, took computer science, biology, psychology, history, and art courses.
And students didn’t just get to pick courses but also got to decide what they wanted the program’s end goal to be. “The program is supposed to be four years, but usually it takes much longer because when you get to the time you’re supposed to choose what you’re doing…you just realize that you didn’t do it all,” said Segal.
But both Segal and Adaf believed it was worth the effort because students were able to figure out what they really wanted to study. By trying everything they could, they could understand what they enjoyed learning about and what they felt their education was missing. This program is excellent for artists-to-be, claims Adaf, because it allows them to pinpoint gaps in their knowledge about certain topics and focus on what they wanted to learn.
Interdisciplinary Studies Beyond University
But the learning does not stop in university – being a generalist and interacting across a variety of disciplines can help in the workplace too. By bringing in new ideas from other fields, innovations start to emerge. Segal, who worked at the Microsoft Innovation Lab in Israel before turning into a full-time artist, saw this firsthand through the startups and Artist in Residence programs she worked in.
In these cases, people from different sectors could have discussions about their fields, which led to questions they wouldn’t have asked otherwise. Being able to step back and see work or a situation from a different lens allowed new observations to be made. Sometimes it led to new ideas, often leading to better work.
As an artist-in-residence at a startup accelerator in Berlin, Segal encouraged people to disconnect from work during a specific time period. She tried to facilitate conversations with other entrepreneurs and push them to find inspiration in other places besides their job or what they had studied.
Once the entrepreneurs started doing this regularly, they noticed that the technology they were making could be done in a more human-friendly way. The discussions they had with others had inspired them to see things differently.
And this is just one example of many. The Medici Effect by Frans Johanssen details many examples of interdisciplinary innovations throughout history, proving that creativity lives on the intersection of disciplines. In one instance, a group of students at Brown University developed a brain implant that let monkeys move a computer cursor with their mind. A team from various departments – neuroscience, biology, computer science – joined together to create this groundbreaking technology.
Another example would be the invention of the balloon catheter – an innovation that helped save thousands of lives by improving the process of surgically removing a blood clot. While working at a hospital, Dr. Thomas J Fogarty saw how dangerous the surgery could be. He combined his knowledge of surgery, anatomy, and fly fishing to create something small enough not to cause damage, but effective enough to remove a clot.
What You Can Do
Not all of us want to create a medical breakthrough, but we would like to adapt to an ever-changing world. So what can we do?
On a corporate level, don’t rush to decline generalist candidates because they actually might be more beneficial to your team than you can imagine. And on an individual level, follow Segal’s advice: “Just Do.” If you are interested in something, don’t be afraid to try it. Skill level doesn’t matter, just the will to try. You never know what you might learn from the experience.
And, as some of the great artists would suggest, be willing to experiment. And experimentation goes beyond trying new restaurants and new dishes. Try changing up the current patterns you may have. Find inspiration everywhere, and apply it in new ways, even if you don’t think it will work.
Leonardo da Vinci combined art and anatomy, while Dr. Fogerty combined medicine and flyfishing. Both created innovations that we will remember for decades to come.
To learn more about the importance of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary learning stay tuned for future articles…