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Series learning versus parallel learning

September 22, 2011

One of the principal criticisms one meets when setting up an interdisciplinary degree is that what the student learns will be ‘superficial’. It may have some breadth, but no real depth, none of the necessary ‘stuff’ one should get from a proper university degree.

In my discussions and presentations I try to assuage this worry by, among other things, pointing to the work and thoughts of my colleagues, the Pathway Representatives on the Arts and Sciences degree. These front-rank academics are all eloquent on the centrality and necessity of interdisciplinary thought and working in their research, and in the business- and policy-facing aspects of their lives.

The doubters counter: ‘Ah, but these people did not get to where they are by learning in the interdisciplinary fashion you propose. In fact they studied something in depth for several years before branching out and sideways. But it is that depth and the time spent studying one discipline alone and in detail which gives them authority, and it is their centre from which they move to learn other disciplines which enhance their core expertise’.

My colleagues and I reply: ‘Maybe; but it didn’t have to be this way. In fact, we would have understood much better, sooner and more completely had we been made aware of these other disciplines early on in our learning. We could have studied all that we know now in parallel and made the sorts of useful connections we now need. We would have got to the same place we are now, only sooner and perhaps with more complete knowledge.’

And the doubters say: ‘Well you can say that, but it is unproven. The fact is that you arrived where you are by studying one discipline after another’.

This leads me to two views of the learning process which I want to define: Series Learning and Parallel Learning.

The idea is very simple and comes straight from electric circuits. In series learning you learn one thing after another and eventually arrive at some total amount of knowledge, X. In parallel learning you learn several things at the same time and eventually also arrive at a similar total amount of knowledge, X.

The claim for interdisciplinary learning is that parallel learning gives you advantages that series learning lacks. Those advantages may be: learning depth by fostering analogies; learning applicability by understanding context; learning flexibility by being aware of different modes of thought and ways of working; encouraging creative breakthroughs by using examples and models from different fields, etc. This is plausible, but it really does need to be researched to be properly underpinned. This is something I might look to do in the next few years.

For now, I can reflect on my own learning. I also aim to ask my truly interdisciplinary colleagues to reflect on and critique their own learning. I feel this is very important if we are to meet our students honestly and tell them what they can expect from an interdisciplinary degree: how it might benefit them, but also the pitfalls they face.

In my own case, I am very aware that I went ‘the other way’. I started out on a degree in philosophy and physics, but I felt I could not really discuss the issues in a philosophically respectable manner without ‘understanding more physics’, so I switched to straight physics. I soon began to feel I could not get to the heart of the physics without doing much more maths, and ended up doing about 1/2 pure maths and 1/2 theoretical physics. This is not true interdisciplinarity; so how else could my university learning have been?

Well, firstly, we all learn differently – we are all ‘different learners’, in the language of the day. I am analytical and want constantly to burrow down to first principles, to fundamentals. I seek clarification after clarification. Perhaps these sorts of learners are not best suited to interdisciplinarity. There is a sort of anxiety about them that requires that they see simple things very clearly in order to progress. Interdisciplinary learning perhaps requires less need to ground oneself in this way; it is naturally more synthetic; it suits people who have a sort of metaphysical confidence which allows them to get on with making interesting connections at a ‘higher’ level – between economics and psychology, computing and design, literature and anthropology, biology and art and so on.

But there is also a place for a discussion of the role of mentorship in this. I have no doubt, looking back, that I would have benefitted in my learning of quantum physics from being taken to the chemistry department to see how they use the techniques to get results, and how that affects their work. In physics, and in particular on the theoretical side, one can get stuck on the formalisms, the quasi-philosophical motivations for the meanings ascribed to the variables and so on. A trip to the chemistry lab, organised by an interdisciplinary mentor, to see quantum atomic and molecular physics in action would have put to bed any doubts I had about the subject. This would have helped me to leap forward in the sorts of physics calculations I was asked to do. Sometimes just doing something (rather than thinking about it) helps you understand it. And this working view of quantum physics that chemistry could have obtained for me would have given me that kind of understanding.

An even better example in my own learning, perhaps, is with respect to tensor analysis. In my learning of theoretical physics I felt I hit my ceiling with General Relativity. I could no longer see the mental pictures which had guided me even in quantum mechanics (which I did grasp) and Special Relativity. And the problem was the mathematics of tensors. However, tensors are used all the time by engineers in eminently practical ways – no cosmology here! – and, in retrospect, I feel sure that a course in tensors from the engineering department would have snapped me out of my block with the tensors I encountered in Einstein’s work. I would then have been free to return to this work with a more 3-D perspective, allowing me to progress in my understanding of General Relativity.

Now this is speculative, I accept. We can not know what would have happened in these cases. But it seems plausible that with the right guidance and opportunity I could have furthered my physics understanding with undergraduate courses in chemistry and engineering – this is interdisciplinarity in the sciences. My colleague, the chemist Stephen Price, certainly agrees with this. To find a way to test these hypotheses would be valuable.

I have chosen these examples a) because I know about them intimately – they are from my own experience! ; b) because it is in the hard sciences that most of the worry about superficiality in interdisciplinarity raises its head.

Somewhere else I will discuss interdisciplinarity in the social sciences and humanities – but this does seem inherently less problematic. Perhaps that reflects my own prejudices! We will see.

In any event, series learning vs parallel learning is on the map: a better research agenda so that the right learners can benefit from the right type of learning for them is now what we should work on.

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