Multidisciplinary ecosystem for 21st-century education

We often forget people are primarily designed for action, not for listening to lectures, not for manipulating symbols, and not for memorizing facts. Perhaps that’s the reason we still continue to deploy these three methods while imparting most of our primary and higher education. In fact, educators have known this at least since the philosopher of education John Dewey advised in 1938:

“There should be brief intervals of time for quiet reflection provided for even the young. But they are periods of genuine reflection only when they follow after times of more overt action and are used to organize what has been gained in periods of activity in which the hands and other parts of the body besides the brain are used.”

Community of Knowledge

The history of liberal education has so far made us believe that the purpose of education should be to give people the knowledge and skills to be independent thinkers. However, the idea that education should increase intellectual independence is a very narrow view of learning. It ignores the fact that knowledge depends a lot on others as well.

For instance, to fix cars, a mechanic needs to know who can provide parts and who can deliver them, find out which cars have been recalled, and learn about the latest design innovations. Cars these days depend on technology that comes from all around the world. A decent car mechanic will have access to knowledge distributed throughout the automobile industry community.

Learning, therefore, isn’t just about developing new knowledge and skills. It’s also about learning to collaborate with others, recognizing what knowledge we have to offer and what gaps we must rely on others to help us fill.

In a community of knowledge, an individual is like a single piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Understanding where you fit requires understanding what you know and what others know that you don’t.

Learning your place in a community of knowledge requires becoming aware of all the knowledge outside of yourself. And that’s where the interdisciplinary approach of acquiring liberal education becomes more relevant—where skills like empathy and the ability to listen become more valuable to work well with others. This also means teaching critical thinking skills, not focusing just on facts, facilitating communication, and exchanging ideas.

This is the value of a liberal education proposed in the National Education Policy (NEP 2020), as opposed to learning what you need to get a job.

Beyond Certification Agency

So far, the educational institutes of the 20th century have had a great run in signaling certain qualities like intelligence, diligence, compliance, and conformity to potential employers. As a result, there is a widespread clamor among students to get themselves validated through a higher degree, as it presumably increases the probability of landing a well-paying job.

The undercurrent of this line of thought usually gets a strong expression when students are told to score exceptionally well on the standardized test. It makes them eligible to pursue further studies in the prestigious STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—field—where every other stream finds itself at the mercy of the STEM field to attract the rest of the talented lot.

As long as we don’t find any fault in subscribing to a free market doctrine — where only skills and experiences that are directly convertible to income are considered useful—the need for the education system to make itself sufficiently market aligned remains the top priority, where it doesn’t find any problem in serving as a certification agency.

Historically, Vocational training institutes have been doing the same, fulfilling the industry-specific demand for a particular set of skills — exemplifying the utilitarian model of education.

Should the entire curriculum be made hostage to occupational prospects existing in the current job market?

The premise that acquiring knowledge only helps someone grab a high-paying job is very limited in its scope.

A doctor who is not exposed to the concept of empathy might succeed in becoming a good doctor. However, s/he will fail to become an exceptional healer having widespread respect among his patients.

An architect who is yet to inculcate a habit of appreciating the history of beautiful artistic expression through monuments might become a professional architect. However, s/he will fail to become an exceptionally creative designer capable of making someone stop and appreciate the expression of beauty.

Therefore, as proposed in the National Education Policy (NEP 2020), rather than making students choose only one subject for further studies, the focus should be on identifying their strengths through continuous multidisciplinary exploration so that they could spend a majority of their time on subjects that aligns perfectly with their interest.

Once the interest based on their strength is identified correctly, student invariably ends up on the path of deep learning. And in the process, they become consistently good at producing exceptional results.

Multidisciplinary Problem-Solving Approach

The purpose of higher education is more than just creating high paying job opportunities for students. According to the National Education Policy (NEP 2020), Quality education has an inherent responsibility to play an enabling role in personal accomplishment, constructive public engagement, and productive contribution to society.

The broader objective is to engage faculty and students with local communities to learn a thing or two about real-world problems while functioning in collaborative, inclusive, and cross-disciplinary ways.

For instance, students opting to do their major in social work might gain a lot in having interdisciplinary dialogues on the topics of homelessness, poverty, and crimes with students pursuing their majors in criminal jurisprudence. The analysis of multiple deep-rooted problems from a completely different vantage point invariably throws more contextual and sustainable solutions. This method of approaching socio-economic problems from a multidisciplinary perspective is a welcome change from the privileged expert-silo perspective.

The intent is to design diverse courses that allow students to experience relevant local community service as part of their curriculum so that it helps them become socially conscious citizens.

And as envisaged in the National Education Policy, this is made possible by combining the conceptual knowledge with practical engagement having real-world implications through fieldwork, internship, workshop, and student research project. Even the pedagogy for courses strive for significantly less rote learning with an increased emphasis on communication, discussion, and opportunities for cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking.

Diversified Interest & Creativity

Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates or nationally recognized scientists are much more likely to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glass-blowers, poets, or fiction writers.

Spanish Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, says that “it appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality they are channeling and strengthening them.”

In fact, the main conclusion of work that took years of studying scientists and engineers, all of whom were regarded by peers as true technical experts, was that those who did not make a creative contribution to their field lacked aesthetic interests outside their narrow area.

As psychologist and prominent creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton observed, “rather than obsessively focus[ing] on a narrow topic,” creative achievers tend to have broad interests.

Case in Point

This breadth in interest often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone. For instance, Electrical engineer Claude Shannon, who launched the Information Age, took a course on philosophy to fulfill a requirement at the University of Michigan.

In it, he was exposed to the work of self-taught nineteenth-century English logician George Boole. He was the one who assigned a value of 1 to true statements and 0 to false statements and showed that logic problems could be solved like math equations. It resulted in absolutely nothing of practical importance until seventy years after Boole passed away when Shannon did a summer internship at AT& T’s Bell Labs research facility.

He recognized that he could combine telephone call-routing technology with Boole’s logic system to encode and transmit any information electronically. It was the fundamental insight on which computers rely. It just happened that no one else was familiar with both those fields at the same time.

Comprehensive Liberal Education

In liberal education, exploration is not just a whimsical luxury; it is a central benefit. Learning stuff is of secondary importance than learning about oneself—the emphasis is on developing all capacities of a human being—intellectual, physical, emotional, aesthetic, and moral—in an integrated manner.

With the visible change in this emphasis, even the assessment needs to introduce a criterion-based grading system to optimize the learning goals—where the learning goals aren’t cast in iron. Students are assessed not only on academic aspects but also on the broad capacities and dispositions that are the goals of liberal education.

Along with critical thinking, the faculty makes it a point to complement the curriculum learnings through the magic of analogical thinking, keeping students’ needs in mind.

The pedagogy of analogical thinking takes the new and makes it familiar, takes the familiar, puts it in a new light, and allows humans to reason through problems they have never seen in unfamiliar contexts. It also allows us to understand that which we cannot see at all.

For instance, students might learn about molecules’ motion by analogy to billiard-ball collisions; principles of electricity can be understood with analogies to water flow through plumbing.

Concepts from biology serve as analogies to inform the cutting edge of artificial intelligence: “neural networks” that learn how to identify images from examples (when you search cat pictures, for instance) were conceived as akin to the neurons of the brain, and “genetic algorithms” are conceptually based on evolution by natural selection—solutions are tried, evaluated, and the more successful solutions pass on properties to the next round of solutions.

Concluding Thoughts

We live in a society where the gap between the ideal and practice is so immense that we could park a fleet of Boeing 777 in the existing space. Given that we don’t have a very encouraging track record of implementing the ideals engraved in well-intended policy documents, the actual implementation of holistic and liberal learning by adopting a multidisciplinary approach as proposed in the National Education Policy (NEP 2020) will require us to go beyond our usual method of commitment and execution.

Since the stakeholders (parents, teachers, and employers) involved in this whole scheme of things do suffer from a skewed mindset, it is imperative to bring visible changes in their perspective. The speed with which we can correct the existing skewness in their perception would decide the ultimate fate of implementing the National Education Policy (NEP 2020).

As long as we keep resisting all the changes needed to overhaul the outdated legacy of the 20th-century educational ecosystem, we wouldn’t be able to prepare our next generation for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.


Originally Published in the newspaper the pioneer.

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