Decoding the Interdisciplines: Helping teachers & learners discover unfamiliar ways of thinking

Helping teachers and learners discover unfamiliar ways of thinking.

School:  Edinburgh College of Art

Team Members: Neil Mulholland, Richard Baxstrom, Angela McClanahan, Julie-Ann Delaney, Frances Davis


University of Edinburgh students and staff are encouraged to pursue interdisciplinarity. Crossing disciplines, however, is hampered by significant barriers, so much so that interdisciplinary learning and teaching is very rare. How do we move into uncharted territory wherein an unfamiliar vocabulary and uncustomary methods and tools are taken for granted? Genuine interdisciplinary can take many decades to foster. How can we even begin to support interdisciplinary within a 20 Credit course?

We aim to answer the perennial question, ‘whither interdisciplinarity’? Interdisciplinarity is constantly encouraged, but seldom practiced in our teaching and learning. For example, CAHSS students may take courses from a vast range of disciplines. Students in this ancient Scottish approach (Davie 1986), however, are expected to, somehow, synthesise different disciplines themselves. While we insist that our students be conduits of interdisciplinarity, this insistence seldom extends to mono-disciplinarians in our Subject Areas (Lindvig, Lyall, Meagher 2017). Edinburgh’s generalism doesn’t actively foster interdisciplinarity since it doesn’t provide students with any demonstration of consilience.

We propose to modify Middendorf and Pace’s (2004) Decoding the Disciplines approach (DtD) to address this question: DtD ‘starts by asking, NOT, what information the student needs, but what mental process does the expert use? And how we can uncover that mental process and make it available to students?’ As a method, DtD has been very successful at helping disciplinary experts “unpack” their tacit knowledge and make it intelligible to students. 

We will modify DtD to help experts in different disciplines overcome bottlenecks facing interdisciplinary teachers and learners. We will hack and retool DtD to help different disciplines ‘unpack’ their methods and make them intelligible to each other.

As a case study, we will form a mixed group of art and anthropology staff and postgraduates. We will begin by collectively learning the DtD method. We will subject the DtD method to a hackathon with the aim of retooling it to support genuinely interdisciplinary learning and teaching.

We will then work with common “materials” selected from the University Art Collection and the Social Anthropology Ethnographic Collection (collectively, our Atelier for this project). We will approach our Atelier from our disciplinary perspectives before deploying our retooled DtD method to unpack, share, combine and apply our knowledges.