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Tribal academia must give way to interdisciplinarity

20 Apr 2020 | Tim Hinchcliffe Tim Hinchcliffe (Senior Adviser Learning and Teaching at Advance HE) discusses the challenges that cross-disciplinary working in higher education can present.

Whilst the notion of the ‘lone scholar’ is more prevalent in some disciplines than others, the idea of ‘academic tribes’ is almost ubiquitous. One’s identity is almost always deeply rooted in our discipline or profession and so this entrenchment is reflected in how we organise teaching in our universities.

"Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much." – Helen Keller

The concept of the curricula taught in higher education existing as “subject silos” is an outdated one. In the face of growing market forces, students at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels expect that the transferrable skills they gain in university will allow them to integrate into the highly competitive world of the employment market. Here the seamless ability to work alongside other professionals is essential.

To facilitate this, students must gain, as a minimum, awareness of a broad range of subjects. Equally vital, however, is to be able to understand the skills, motivations and roles that others, not of their own subject background, bring to a team.

As far back as the 1930s, social scientists began to understand that a key factor in the failure of individuals to work, or even exist, together came from prejudice and misunderstandings based largely on their differing racial and cultural backgrounds.

The publication, in 1954, of Gordon Allport’s “intergroup contact hypothesis” led to a wider acceptance that bringing different groups together for a common purpose was a key way in overcoming previously held, obstructive views. Many might say that this is exactly what universities are supposed to do; bring students from all backgrounds and circumstances together for the common purpose of education. Despite this, the work of Allport and other colleagues found that simply putting people in the same space was not enough.

The groups must have equal status, clear goals, intergroup co-operation and above all the support of the overarching senior figures (be they law, custom or other). Whilst initially based in the field of social sciences, this work came to be the most important underpinning pedagogical theory for implementing inter-professional education programmes (IPE). It set a framework for developing and delivering these programmes, showing that there was a clear need for structure and drive from university curricula to provide relevance, but also a need for time.

“Inter-professional education: occasions when two or more professions learn with, from and about each other to improve collaboration and the quality of care” - CAIPE (1997)

Medical education has long known of the importance of multi-professional working and the impact it has on patients’ journeys. A key driver in some of the biggest failings in healthcare - the tragic cases of Victoria Climbie and “Baby P” being just two - are rooted in an inability of individuals to overcome their prejudicial views of other healthcare professionals and communicate effectively with them.

This has led directly to changes to the requirements placed on education providers for these subjects. The General Medical Council (GMC) for England recently updated its “outcomes for graduates” to more firmly entrench IPE within taught medical degrees. In its latest update to the “standards of education and training” the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), itself responsible for registering 16 different professions, implemented a strict requirement for provision of IPE within those programmes at all institutions.

Despite the clear benefits that multidisciplinary working can bring, both in terms of marketability of courses by providing relevant, real-world employment skills and by promoting a more diverse and inclusive attitude in students themselves, many university curriculum designers shudder at the thought of trying to develop and implement such programmes. A recent report published by a multi-professional team at Keele on behalf of the HCPC, highlighted that issues around timetabling, staff and student perceptions and simple logistics were some of the biggest issues faced.

How then do we navigate through the challenges and provide our students with access to this highly beneficial style of learning? This workshop will aim to provide insights into how this might work in multiple settings, but we encourage you to consider the following yourself:

  1. How might my students benefit from working with students from other disciplines in a more formalised setting?
  2. What challenges would I face if I tried to implement this? What opportunities could I take advantage of?



Are you interested in exploring the benefits of interdisciplinary education and deepening your understanding of how to make it a success? Join us for our next Innovation in Teaching Practice workshop on 28 April for an online look into Interdisciplinarity.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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