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What is IDL?

“The student who can begin in early life to think of things as connected…..has begun the life of learning”. Mark van Doren (poet, writer, critic) 1943.

Interdisciplinary learning (IDL) is a way of thinking and learning in which learners draw on knowledge, understanding and skills from two or more subjects in order to solve a problem or advance our understanding of a concept or idea that extends beyond the scope of any one subject. IDL enables the transfer and application of subject knowledge and language to other areas of learning and to new problems. It is not a substitute for subject-based learning – on the contrary, disciplinary and interdisciplinary learning are complementary and interlinked. IDL cannot exist separately from disciplines but is founded on strong disciplinary knowledge, understanding and skills. It should complement and enrich subject learning, facilitate learning across subject boundaries, and enable students to use their learning beyond the situation in which the learning occurred.

Featured image: Whitelee Wind Farm, nr Glasgow. CC BY-3.0 Author: BJ Mullan

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The IDL Network

The IDL Network is one of several outcomes of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s (RSE) 2019 conference on “Interdisciplinary Learning: Creative Thinking for a Complex World. At the conference, a questionnaire was circulated to around 160 delegates, respondents to which (practitioners, school leaders and teacher educators) supported the establishment of a teacher forum, which the RSE has co-ordinated.

An overarching challenge to the implementation of IDL is the lack of a common understanding and clarity about what constitutes IDL. Improving our understanding of IDL and related approaches to connecting subject learning by various means within the education community is therefore a priority. The Network has been established as a WordPress website with the aim of forming and building a broad community of practice around IDL.

Featured image: Queensferry Crossing. CC BY-2.0. Author: Tony Hisgett.

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Is IDL just another Educational initiative?

The education system is notorious for its ‘new initiatives’. Understandably, we repeatedly aim to raise attainment by motivating the less than enthusiastic learner, but instead produce short-term solutions that rarely fulfil this expectation. Each decade or so we find that success in engaging the disengaged continues to elude us. Many documents are written, many person hours engaged and much funding provided to resolve this issue but frequently it is patchy, any success is short lived, and verifiable analysis of the given initiative unclear and lacking in concrete and measurable results.

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What is a discipline? – the importance of subject knowledge in IDL

When talking about IDL and its development, it’s helpful to remind ourselves what disciplines and school subjects are and why they are important in IDL. A discipline is a branch of learning or domain of knowledge that is characterised by distinct objects, concepts, principles, theories, skills, tools and applications. Established disciplines in schools, colleges, higher education and research institutions alike comprise groupings of ‘like-minded’ people with a shared language. Their boundaries are not always well defined. Disciplines give structure and rigour to the development of knowledge, and provide a reservoir of knowledge and skills that contribute economic, cultural and social value to the well being of society (RSE, Pillars and Lintels, 2017).

Discipline boundaries evolve with time as new disciplinary knowledge accrues. However, major new insights and understandings – and solutions to real-world problems – frequently emerge in the gaps between disciplinary boundaries – the interdisciplinary areas. 

Disciplines and school subjects are often conflated. In contrast to disciplines, school subjects are not ends in themselves but are a way of apportioning curriculum content from within and across an increasingly wide body of knowledge (Priestley, 2019). As a broad body of knowledge, the curriculum should embrace both subject knowledge and interdisciplinary knowledge (IDL) in a coherent way.


Featured image: Fruit bowl © Nick Hood 2020

Work, learning and community in the 21st century

Jobs in the 21st century are becoming project-driven and problem-driven rather than subject-driven, requiring teamwork that involves the collaborative engagement of specialists and generalists. Employers increasingly seek to employ those with breadth of knowledge and skills, including communication, interpersonal and technical skills, and the capacity to analyse problems from different perspectives. Subject-specific knowledge is no longer the primary determinant of suitability in most graduate recruitment. According to the Institute of Student Employers (an employment-led membership organisation) 82% of graduate recruiters in 2017 did not mind what degree subjects or qualifications candidates offered.

Higher-order skills will be essential to meet these and other complex challenges, with a rebalancing beyond narrowly focused specialists towards more flexible learners and workers with ongoing access to lifelong IDL and training. The OECD’s skills strategy identifies the need for higher order skills to thrive in an uncertain world, including problem-solving, creativity, critical thinking, team working, resilience and adaptability.

However, IDL is not just about equipping learners with more useful knowledge and skills for the workplace; it is more broadly about providing learners with experiences, knowledge and understandings that foster a lifelong love for learning, creativity, collaboration and community, and a deeper understanding of the world.

Read more about what the network will do in practice, and how you can contribute, on this page.

Featured image: National Library of Ireland, Dublin. © Colin Graham 2018