The Promise of Interdisciplinary Connections
My favorite part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions each year is at the end, when the inductees, presenters, and other musicians take the stage for a huge jam session. Artists across rock, blues, jazz, R&B, and hip hop unite to celebrate music as a fundamental concept, playing each other’s songs, trading off on lyrics, and offering variations on well-known standards. It is a creation that could not exist without the interdisciplinary nature of the group of musicians, with their varied styles, skills, and approaches, and I am moved and inspired every time.
In the education field, many professionals find themselves siloed. They focus on a particular topic or type of practice and tend to communicate within circles of others who do and study that same thing. There are often good reasons for this, both in research and practice.
Being an expert in a particular research area requires focused study, as well as staying current on the studies released in that area. Researchers are often encouraged—whether in graduate school or beyond—to develop a defined path that will allow them to reach their goals. Similarly, practitioners often find that expertise in a particular practice or method requires a great deal of education and training, and their work necessarily centers on that practice for an extended period (if not forever).
Clearly, maintaining a purposeful focus in your work is valuable. However, developing connections with colleagues in other disciplines can bring new perspectives and context to a topic or practice. In another blog post, I encouraged people to attend conferences outside their typical range, whether that be researchers attending practitioner-focused conferences or vice versa. I now expand this to recommend seeking conferences or other experiences that attract professionals across varied disciplines.
While I spend a good deal of my professional time at meetings and conferences, these are generally populated by others in the education field (even if our roles differ significantly). However, a recent conference provided a vastly different experience. The 12th annual conference convened by the University of New Mexico’s Mentoring Institute attracted speakers, presenters, and attendees from a broad range of disciplines, with varied experiences, perspectives, and theories about mentoring.
I was there to present about mentoring to support early childhood teachers’ mental health but was intrigued by presentations and discussions from experts in fields as varied as health sciences, performing arts, community development, medicine, and higher education. I spent the week talking to people I otherwise would have never met and had much deeper and more meaningful conversations about mentoring than if surrounded by people in my own research area. Arthur H. Goldsmith’s 2018 summary of interdisciplinary instruction aligns well with my experience: “taking insights from a variety of relevant disciplines, synthesizing their contribution to understanding, and then integrating these ideas into a more complete, and hopefully coherent, framework of analysis.”
These interactions led me to think a great deal about interdisciplinary opportunities, and the unfortunate fact that many do not find a lot of them in their day-to-day work. According to Goldsmith, “A single disciplinary perspective often has limitations in that it is driven by the norms and framework of a particular discipline without consideration and incorporation of alternative views.”
In the education field, we spend a lot of time with people who have similar knowledge and activities. It can be hard to separate from that, but we could all benefit from seeking out these interdisciplinary connections. These can be formal or informal and can come from varied sources. Potential avenues could include
attending conferences that draw professionals from varied fields, particularly those with a focus on innovation or collaboration across professions;
reaching out to potential mentors or collaborators in other fields whose interests or skillsets are complementary to yours;
creating opportunities for conversations about ideas that are relevant across fields (for example, discussion groups or "brown bag" sessions); and
consuming art, media, or other publications that provoke challenging thoughts and new ideas, and considering how to incorporate these into your work.
Interdisciplinary education connections and collaborations may not bring quite the same level of excitement as an annual celebration of rock-and-roll legends, but they do have the power to invigorate and amplify our work.
Bridget Thomas (@DrBridgeQIP) is Senior Education Researcher at QIP and Adjunct Professor at George Mason University. Her work focuses on early childhood policy and translating research for multiple audiences.