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Symphony: Collaboration as Curriculum (Part 4 of 5)

Collaboration versus Compromise
Image by Peter Nilsson and Brent Hale
Bill Newell, co-founder of the Association of Interdisciplinary Studies and its Executive Director for over 30 years, agrees. Agreement, that is, is part of collaboration, and interdisciplinary work requires some agreeing.

When describing true interdisciplinary work, Newell uses the word “interperspectival.” He says, “A discipline offers a perspective on the world: a way of evaluating knowledge. Interdisciplinary Studies draws on disciplinary perspectives and integrates their insights through construction of a more comprehensive understanding.”

“There is the unfortunate presumption,” he continues, “that interdisciplinarity simply requires bringing people from different disciplines together and having them talk. Too often, the result of conversation between people with conflicting worldviews is that they agree to disagree. Or, they compromise. Interdisciplinary studies develops techniques for creating common ground that go way beyond these outcomes.”

As Newell’s descriptions suggest, Interdisciplinary Studies focuses much more on process than on product. It is about techniques and habits of mind. It involves seeking out diverse perspectives, evaluating and modifying insights, and integrating understandings. What Newell describes is an academic approach to collaboration, a pragmatic process that brings out new understanding through working relationships. Ultimately, the goal of Newell’s interdisciplinary work is to solve real-world problems—wicked problems that require teams of people with disparate knowledge to work together, find common ground, and reach conclusions that none alone could have reached. It sounds like humbling work.


Bill Newell, co-founder of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies and its Executive Director for over 30 years, identifies four Interdisciplinary Habits of Mind:

1. Drawing Insights from different perspectives into a complex issue
    • Strive for adequacy in each discipline, and feel for its perspective.
    • Seek out diversity of perspectives for richer/comprehensive understanding.
2. Evaluating Insights
    • Assume each disciplinary perspective has at least a kernel of truth.
    • Bracket and set aside or suspend personal convictions.
    • Seek out all sides of argument; avoid overstatement/overconfidence.
    • Look for strengths in arguments you dislike, weaknesses in those you like.
3. Modifying Insights
    • Seek commonalities not compromises; look for win-win scenarios.
    • Think holistically, contextually, systematically.
    • Think dualistically (either/or) in drawing on disciplinary perspectives, but also inclusively (both/and) in integrating their insights.
    • Embrace contradiction: ask how solutions can be both.
    • Use the techniques for creating common ground (redefinition, extension, reorganization, transformation) in adjudicating conflicts between disciplinary insights.
4. Integrating Insights into a more comprehensive understanding of a complex issue
    • Expect multiple causes and effects.
    • Look for unexamined linkages and unexpected effects.
    • Be responsive to all perspectives but dominated by none of them; strive for balance.
    • Integrate as you go; don’t wait for all of a discipline’s insights.
    • Don’t fall in love with a solution until the full complexity of an issue has been explored.
    • Value intellectual flexibility and playfulness.

(from Newell, William, Interdisciplinary Education: Theory and Findings (presentation slides). Paris, OECD, October 14, 2013)

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