Merriam-Webster defines ‘interdisciplinary’ as “involving two or more academic, scientific, or artistic disciplines”.
My former colleagues cum friends and I, or as we call ourselves ‘Cutie Mark Crusaders +1’ (It is a My Little Pony reference, for those who don’t watch the cartoon) joke that had we four been schoolmates, let alone classmates, we would not have befriended one another simply because we were and are just that different. We have ‘A’ - the Statistician who spends most of his time hunting for good food, and a good gamble; ‘E’ - the linguistic and literature expert who spends her free time playing role playing games, watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race and occasionally cosplays; ‘R’ - a Math educator who likes to dabble in lesser known Math topics especially ones with a visual aspect and enjoys singing and writing music on occasion, and Me - the multidisciplinary Humanities and Social Science who creates content for her dogs on Instagram when she’s not working. Yet, just like the Cutie Mark Crusaders of My Little Pony, we are united by a collective ambition - to redefine education.
As passionate and ambitious educators who seek to redefine the way students learn and teachers teach, we constantly encounter challenges in the classroom such as students’ misperception that each subject - be it Cultural Anthropology, Discrete Mathematics, Public Speaking or Statistics - is a standalone subject that has no correlation to the other subjects. This misperception is evident when students fail to apply their communicative skills, cultivated in the Academic Writing and Public Speaking classes, to their Statistics presentations or their inability to see how History and Mathematics are related. I first encountered this issue when students failed to cite accordingly for a Cultural Anthropology assessment despite having enrolled in the Academic Writing class taught by E. When I asked these students why they failed to cite as taught in the Academic Writing class, their response was a ‘shrug’ and “Oh I forgot we learned that in Ms. E’s class”. Interestingly enough, E emphasised that their citation skills would be put to the test when any student enrolled in my classes. Other than that, we have witnessed students who completed their Public Speaking module, forget any and all their communicative skills during Statistics, Business and/or Sociology presentations.
In my opinion, students’ misperception that subjects are independent of each other and their inability to transfer skills cultivated in one class to another are consequences of being graduates of the rote learning environment commonly found in the Malaysian classrooms. Therefore, this is not a student problem. It is a stumbling block of the Malaysian education system for which the Ministry of Education is attempting to reform with a variety of administrative transformations. However, the top-down approach takes years to design, pilot test and implement, and even longer before students reap the benefits, if any, from the administrative changes. In the meantime, what can educators do to manage students’ misperception that subjects do not correlate and their inability to transfer skills cultivated in one class to another? I want to share an approach the Cutie Mark Crusaders + 1 have employed since 2015: interdisciplinary symposiums.
Anchored in our shared passion to redefine education, no topic is out of bounds for us but how does an Historian, a Linguist, Mathematician and Statistician facilitate a more interdisciplinary learning environment in our classrooms?
An Invitation to Observe Class Presentations
A and E invite R and me to their classes, not to intimidate their students but to present students with a variety of constructive criticisms. For instance, in A’s Statistics class, students are evaluated on their ability to present statistical data to the general public who may or may not have intimate knowledge of Statistics. As such, E and I - who are not as well-versed in Statistics as A and R - play the role of the laymen and it encourages students to perceive how and why it is useful to develop the ability to discern data from a statistical perspective. On the other hand, E invites A, R and myself to her Public Speaking classes to demonstrate to her students the different types of audiences they may encounter in future public speaking occasions.
An Invitation to Participate in Class Discussions and Lectures
In the past, I have invited E to share on how linguistics intertwines with the study of society while R gave a short lecture on astronomy in my World Civilisation class. Additionally, E has invited me to share with her students my experience with writing abstracts and, A and R have lectured in each other’s Math classes as well.
We do this because we recognise each other’s area of speciality(ies) and seek to demonstrate to our students how fields of studies that seemingly have no relation like Math and History are interrelated, and how deceptively simple skills like academic writing require some practice and are relevant outside the classroom.
An Invitation to Contribute to Assessment Planning
As educators on a mission to reimagine the classroom experience, we are constantly sharing with one another new concepts/theories/approaches we’ve learned about our respective fields of studies. For instance, when I decided to incorporate ‘play’ into my assessments, I shared my ideas with A, E and R, and our conversations provided me the opportunity to develop the ideas into tangible assessments such as the alternate history role play. In exchange, R shares with me (we say ‘share’ but I’m still awaiting my Certificate of Math in Everyday Life from the School of R) how as a Math educator she wants to share with her students how Mathematics exist in art and architecture, music and even World War 2.
As educators, the exchange of knowledge and ideas allows us to evaluate the effectiveness of our assessments and to consider our students’ perspective because like the Cutie Mark Crusaders +1, our classrooms comprise individuals with diverse backgrounds and interests.
In conclusion, the informal interdisciplinary symposiums A, E, R and myself have, have facilitated my growth as an educator. Unlike the ‘Brown Bag’ sessions wherein educators share their knowledge and ideas about their respective fields of studies or the development of a research which may or may not be mandated by the institution and require some degree of administrative work, the approaches shared in this article are organic byproducts of our friendship and collective ambition to redefine education. Moreover, it is a visible demonstration to students of how fields of studies are interdisciplinary and skills developed in one subject is transferable to another, without the need to lecture them.