Challenging bias: crossing boundaries and interdisciplinary learning

The tragic death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 and the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement created a window of opportunity to push for change for those campaigning for social justice. Protests across the world called for an ending to systemic racism and police brutality with a noticeable change in discourse around bias, diversity and inclusion. Arguably, support for anti-discrimination policies and practices has continued to grow. I believe that Higher Education has a responsibility to address these persistent challenges through the way we teach, research and support students. This paper argues that an interdisciplinary curriculum drawing on the pedagogy of project-based learning (PBL) which develops structural knowledge, enables learners to challenge their own biases and develop the skills to pursue (social) justice in broader contexts outside of learning.  

Interdisciplinary learning refers to the integration of knowledge, methods, and perspectives from multiple disciplines to create a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of complex issues. The term is often used interchangeably with the term multidisciplinary although it is different. True interdisciplinarity occurs when several disciplines are combined into one activity and thus supports thinking across boundaries. Multidisciplinary learning tends to involve several disciplines but without the crossover. Interdisciplinarity can therefore be described as an approach which focuses on the way the disciplines link and bring together the various aspects of the different disciplines in a meaningful way.

Nikitina (2006) suggests a typology for an interdisciplinary curriculum based on the type of inquiry that might arise in a learning environment. Her typology suggests three important distinctions occur in interdisciplinary learning: contextualizing, conceptualizing and problem-centring. Which one depends on the nature of the disciplines and their guiding epistemology. For example, the way of connecting the disciplinary material would be through contextualising by historical, cultural or ideological themes if the guiding epistemology is the humanities. Conceptualizing tends to fit more with scientific methods for applied sciences or creative product-development epistemologies, a more problem-based approach can be employed to investigate the disciplinary relationships.

In fact, despite Nikitina’s narrow definition in relation to epistemologies, problem-based approaches are used more broadly than just the applied sciences or creative industries. Teaching students to code, organising field trips, and social justice legal projects are all examples of how PBL is used in teaching.

PBL can be defined as ‘an approach to structuring the curriculum which involves confronting students with problems from practice which provide a stimulus for learning’ (Boud and Feletti, 1997). In other words, it enables students to examine a central theme, issue, problem, topic or experience from different disciplinary perspectives and to draw these together to find a solution. Having been around since the 1960s, PBL is not a new idea. It originated in medical education in Canada in a bid to move away from traditional rote- based lectures. PBL is often combined with lectures and skills classes so that it’s one of many learning events for students in modern-day learning.

At the Open University one module which draws on PBL is YXM830 Advance your independent learning which allows learners to choose a real-life problem or scenario to research. Students generate a question based on the problem (e.g. How to improve classroom management for students retaking English GCSE in an FE college or How to develop induction resources for onboarding of graduate scheme students in an SME). Students then research and create a project with tangible outputs relating to the project.

PBL is said to be an empowering way of working because it takes away many of the familiar structures of what can be called a ‘traditional education’. Although this might prove to be problematic initially, when guided and shown how it works, PBL can support learners with the development of structural knowledge. Structural knowledge refers to an individual’s understanding of the organization, relationships, and connections between the different elements or components of a system, domain or discipline to provide a deeper comprehension of how these different elements fit together. This type of deep learning enables individuals to analyse, reason, and problem-solve effectively within the given context. PBL aids the development of skills for lifelong learning because deep learning helps to accumulate knowledge that can be applied to everyday situations, and that notion of a broader context.

Given the scientific nature of the inquiry method PBL often starts with a question, for example; ‘How can we reduce global warming in the next 20 years?’ or ‘How can we replace fossil fuels?’ Skillen (2014) suggests that PBL can be flipped so that a project is initiated through a context, environment or output such as painting a picture, or using Scratch to build a computer program. Either way, PBL is active learning and cyclical.

PBL involves using real life problems or carefully constructed problems reflecting real-life phenomena (Schmidt, 1983) to support the development of a host of skills and knowledge. PBL strengthens and deepens the skills and knowledge associated with interdisciplinary learning. Critical thinking skills are developed by creating a desire or motivation to explore the issue at hand. Collective skills, such as collaboration help to solve the problem. Integration and interrogation can create solutions to the problem. PBL develops problem solving skills, the ability to make reasoned decisions in unfamiliar situations, critical and creative reasoning, and empathy to appreciate other viewpoints (Spronken-Smith, 2005).

It is the development of these skills and others that make a problem-based approach beneficial in challenging biases.

Newell (1990) identifies core outcomes of interdisciplinary learning which include a sensitivity to ethical issues, enlarged perspectives or horizons, the ability to synthesize or integrate more creative, original or unconventional thinking, more humility or listening skills, and sensitivity to bias. Interdisciplinary learning and PBL has the potential to challenge bias because it encourages a holistic and multifaceted approach to knowledge acquisition, it allows for the development of multiple perspectives because it involves integrating knowledge and methodologies from different disciplines, it encourages students to consider diverse perspectives, theories, and frameworks when analysing complex issues. By exposing learners to different viewpoints, interdisciplinary learning helps challenge individual biases and therefore encourages critical thinking. It encourages students to critically evaluate, self-reflect and question the foundations of knowledge and recognize potential biases embedded within them. Interdisciplinary learning encourages the examination of ethical implications across different disciplines. By exploring the ethical dimensions of various issues, students become more aware of potential biases and their consequences. This increased awareness helps challenge bias by promoting ethical decision-making based on a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives. Interdisciplinary learning often requires students to analyse data and conduct research from multiple disciplines. This process encourages critical evaluation of sources, methodologies, and potential biases within data collection and analysis. By adopting a rigorous and evidence-based approach, interdisciplinary learning challenges biases that may arise from selective or incomplete information. When students engage with interdisciplinary learning, they are exposed to diverse perspectives from various disciplines. This exposure helps challenge bias by allowing individuals to explore different viewpoints, ideologies, and approaches to problem-solving. By understanding different perspectives, students can develop a more nuanced understanding of complex issues and move beyond their own biases.

Specifically, PBL involves collaborative projects and discussions among students from different disciplines. This collaborative environment fosters open dialogue and the exchange of ideas, which can challenge bias by bringing together students with diverse perspectives to solve problems. Engaging in respectful conversations and considering diverse perspectives helps students recognize their own biases or limited viewpoints and encourages the development of more informed and inclusive perspectives. By focusing on solving real-world problems and tackling authentic and complex issues, PBL exposes students to the complexity and nuances of different situations, challenging preconceived notions and biases. They learn to consider multiple perspectives, weigh evidence, and make informed decisions. Students are encouraged to reflect on their assumptions, biases, and the impact they may have on their problem-solving approach. This introspection helps them recognize and address personal biases. PBL often incorporates feedback and peer review processes which allows students to identify and address any biases present in their work. Peer feedback encourages constructive criticism and helps students develop a more balanced perspective.  PBL can promote cultural competence by exposing students to different cultural perspectives, values, and practices. This exposure helps challenge bias by increasing awareness and understanding of diverse cultures, reducing stereotypes, and fostering empathy and respect.

By embracing interdisciplinary approaches, individuals can develop a more comprehensive and unbiased understanding of complex issues. Interrogating bias, thinking critically and reflexively, challenging assumptions, embracing ambiguity, contextual understanding, and analysing ethical concerns are key benefits of learning across boundaries through PBL. By promoting a multidimensional and inclusive approach to learning, PBL can provide valuable tools and perspectives that help challenge bias and foster more open-minded and informed individuals who can apply their knowledge and skills beyond their immediate learning environment. However, it’s important to note that interdisciplinary learning and PBL alone may not completely eradicate bias, as biases can be deeply ingrained and complex and that PBL should be one part of a number of initiatives which promote inclusivity, diversity, and equity in Higher Education.

Blog by: Rehana Awan – The Open University

Picture: Hans Peter Gauster


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