Lee Gass
October 2006

Thank you very much for welcoming me into your community for an evening and a morning last month. As I mentioned in my second talk, the energy, enthusiasm, and commitment you displayed were palpable. Because of you, the sessions were inspiring to me, and I feel honoured to have been included in such a joyful celebration of learning and teaching. Hopefully, my comments on interdisciplinary approaches to undergraduate education and on critical thinking, creativity, and related arts were useful to you. Following are some reflections on the event, beginning with something about the nature of critical thinking.

I implied above, as in my talks, that critical thinking and creativity are closely allied. This claim lies at the heart of everything I said. To the extent that my claim is true, it follows that we must make a large, central space for creativity in our classrooms, and nurture it, if we intend our students to become critical thinkers. In this light, our role as teachers is not so much to be the sage on the stage or the guide on the side. Much more, we must be cultural engineers. As teachers, we must foster, model, and celebrate the full embrace of ignorance, and be tricksters who invent situations that invite, encourage, exercise, and celebrate nascent ability, wherever we find it, to navigate those spaces. Another way of saying this is that we learn to think critically by thinking critically. Critical thought, for the thinker, always traverses new ground. These principles apply as much to teachers as to students, and they apply to all administrators.

In the sessions, participants raised two key questions in relation to my stories about interdisciplinary teaching and critical thinking. They are closely related. Could it be that the interdisciplinary approaches to teaching that I discussed can work for research scientists hired for their research ability, but not for community college teachers hired for their teaching? Could it be that the approaches to critical thinking I discussed can work for university students with rich academic backgrounds and keen interest but not for community college students? These are important questions, if only because they suggest something qualitative about interdisciplinarity and creativity that makes them the exclusive territory of special students and teachers. Since I don’t at all believe this, I will respond to the questions more extensively and in a bit more depth than I did in the heat of the moment.

The professors. Unquestionably, personal, professional experience of doing science is invaluable in helping others learn to do science, just as experience of doing anything helps in teaching others to do it. That is one basis for the claim that universities are great places to learn to be professionals. But long immersion in the silos of our specialties can also make us narrow, inflexible, and resistant to anything that stretches us in unexpected directions. It can make us competitive with our peers (and even with our students). And the esoteric nature of what we argue about, as well as how we argue it, can make us disdainful of people who argue about other things or in other ways.

My stories were about how one academic community learned that when research disciplines are allowed to interact with each other in undergraduate education, directly or indirectly, the benefits of disciplinarity can be magnified, even while some of its shortcomings display themselves. All of my stories were about teaching science, and all happened in a university. I hope I implied clearly enough at the time, however, that many other kinds of academic communities, including your particular community college community, could generate similar kinds of stories. My knowledge of your institution is limited, of course, and except for a few transfer students who may have taken my classes at UBC, I don’t know your students at all. But I have interacted relatively intimately with a strong sample of your faculty, and with a few administrators a little. Although I understand the legendary stinginess of governments in funding community colleges and have heard you find fault with the quality of some of your students (I hear this everywhere, from elementary schools to the best universities), I’ve seen nothing yet to convince me you can’t do it and do it well.

On the contrary, I came away from my short time with you buoyed by a strong sense of possibility. (And your beautiful campus can’t be anything but a benefit to you in your endeavors.) Besides all that, I don’t see what you could lose by taking on some of the challenges I offered you and talking with each other about what you learn. None of it is easy, and much of the effort must be expended outside of classrooms. That means it takes time, and it also means that it takes money. My message to you, though, is not that it will be easy but that it is possible. I have no doubt that, as a community, if you want these things badly enough, they will happen.

On balance, I think the qualities of openness, willingness to speak freely and honestly about knowledge and ignorance, and the kind of intelligence that my mother called “smart” (i.e. street smart), weigh more heavily in this kind of teaching than either raw intelligence or disciplinary expertise. Creating new knowledge professionally through research does not necessarily foster breadth, openness, or integration, but interdisciplinary teaching requires all three of them and a whole lot more. I think successful interdisciplinary teaching (and indeed all teaching) requires continuing personal engagement with the content (as Parker Palmer argued beautifully in The Courage to Teach). This personal relationship with the material must remain alive and growing at whatever level of sophistication. And the teacher, who in this context is clearly a learner, must be willing to share the process of that engagement.

In the first few years of the Integrated Sciences Program at UBC, the most successful interdisciplinary courses were not taught by world experts in the content areas that defined them. Most instructors were world experts in something, but those specialties usually occupied a minor or miniscule component of the content, if they figured at all. In that interdisciplinary environment, the emphasis was not so much to transmit the product of our work as scientists, i.e. our knowledge, but to invite students and our colleagues to share, socially, in the process of gaining it. Content still defined the courses, and content was usually what we talked about (most of the time, at least in my case, it was “content with a twist”). But compared to the unidisciplinary teaching we had done before, it was much more important, and much easier, to reflect publicly on the process. Although my own interest in an Integrated Sciences course called The Sizes of Things was inspired deeply by my many years of studying hummingbirds, I don’t remember talking at all about them in the course.

This and related paradoxes led some of us to wonder about conditions in the classroom under which expertise can inhibit learning. Obvious examples are when it is exercised insensitively or with poor timing relative to the learning trajectories of the students. It also led us to wonder about different kinds of expertise, and about ways to use them, especially in combination, to encourage intellectual growth and growth of expertise in others. The deepest, most powerful key to this sort of teaching is not expertise itself, I believe, but the passion to gain it.

Nor is interdisciplinary teaching rocket science. But it is challenging to the core, both intellectually and emotionally. Many of its intellectual challenges stem directly from the fact that it is difficult even for a keen team of co-conspirators to plan things in detail. No matter how hard you prepare in terms of specific planning, you will be surprised frequently if you are doing it right. (This is the very nature of surprise, which can be defined as "the sudden rupturing of expectations".  As soon as you think you know what will occur, something you hadn’t thought of begins, and literally before you know it, you are exploring new territory. Teachable moments abound. Dealing with that kind of surprise is challenging to experts and neophytes alike, and it is challenging to students. Those challenges come with the territory of interdisciplinarity.

The reason we can’t plan well for interdisciplinary teaching (although we can be prepared) is that most of the surprises spring from knowledge that is rooted so deeply in our disciplinary and subdisciplinary cultures that we are unaware of it, and it surfaces only in relation to other cultures. To be effective at all, learning scenarios must take students through new territory by definition, but in every case I have seen so far, they are new territory for everyone.  By "everyone", here, I mean everyone.  Not just students and teachers who are together in classrooms, but whole classrooms, whole Faculties, whole student bodies, whole families, and whole institutions.  To the extent that we are serious in our intentions, it includes whole societies in which governments believe their role is not just to pay for education but to specify it in some way; it includes politicians and government bureaucrats.  To the extent that our efforts are significant enough to make a difference, it sooner or later includes the media and the listening and reading public.  It includes everyone.

Most of the emotional challenges stem from the fact that this kind of teaching and learning forces us out of our zone of comfort, into murky areas where cultures and traditions overlap, and where new knowledge and new insights bubble up freely if they are allowed, encouraged, and cultivated. If the stakes are high enough, as they always are for teachers and students, those situations can be dangerous. Not surprisingly, then, it seems also to be true that they frighten almost everyone, students and teachers alike, and they certainly present administrators with a challenge. This kind of uncertainty, I suggest, is one of the defining circumstances for interdisciplinary teaching at its best. When they’re working, those scenarios are a lot like the real world.

Interdisciplinary teaching is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for pretenders who would masquerade their knowledge as understanding or even wisdom. Those people are exposed quickly in the crossfire of points of view (and everyone is exposed sooner or later). Interdisciplinary teaching is for anyone well enough grounded in any field of study to appreciate its gaps, its history of growth by invention and selection, and something of its rules of engagement, and for anyone curious to know more. Above all, it is for people willing to profess their own ignorance and that of the disciplines they represent, even while celebrating both knowledge and understanding. Interdisciplinary teaching is for learners. (If anything is revolutionary in what I have offered you, it is the pre-eminent importance of ignorance in the teaching of critical thinking.)

The students. The stories I told you were about my own students. I expressed them in my personal language of storytelling, made vivid with the local colour of the situations in which they occurred and made complete with the backgrounds and attitudes of those particular students and their teachers. Many, many other stories could be told about other students in other kinds of situations. I have told enough of them myself to know that this kind of story, i.e. stories about learning critical thinking in critical, often interdisciplinary situations, can be told about anyone. This should be no surprise, since critical thinking is a basic survival skill in the real world (unlike so much of what we learn and teach in schools), and humans have been practicing it for many millenia.

One such story, published first in the learning and teaching newsletter at the National University of Singapore, is about two ordinary high school students without noticeably special abilities who did some amazing creative science in a new teacher’s classroom. I said before that I believe interdisciplinary teaching of critical thinking will work for Camosun faculty, given the qualities that I observed in my short stay there. I have no doubt that Camosun students can learn to think critically in Camosun classrooms. It is a survival skill, as I said. And so is working in groups.

It is true that the UBC Science One student body is highly select. We scrape up some of the best students from high schools all over the world, make sure they are interested in science not just as a way of getting grades but as something serious, make sure they can write clearly and powerfully about their own lives, stuff them into a room with 7 dedicated PhDs, and the stories I told you come out. There’s no denying any of that. Coordinated Sciences Program students are more normal. Statistically, they represent UBC science students in general. They are still UBC science students, but most of them would not survive in Science One. They don’t have the depth or extent of background in the sciences or beyond, they typically bring less intellectual rigour and less experience of critical thinking to their work at first, and most of them are not the self-described science “keeners” that populate Science One. But all indications are that the approaches I discussed work in both programs. They worked for me in teaching high school in the 1960s and from then until the beginning of Science One in 1993, and I see no reason to think that they would not work anywhere.

I understand that community college students tend to be older than their university colleagues on average, and more experienced at living in the real world. If so, then they should have two important advantages over university students, given the general thrust of public education in our culture. They should have been exposed to a greater variety of ways of looking at the world, and their experience should have made them smarter - - not just intelligent, but smarter. Those qualities would predispose them to learning in the ways that I described (and probably also make them less tolerant of traditional teaching of traditional material). In addition, to the extent that students are encouraged to interact socially in their learning, these benefits should extend as well to younger and less experienced students. Considering only those factors, it should be easier to teach interdisciplinary critical thinking in community colleges than in universities. Of course, other factors should level the playing field somewhat, but I see no good reason to believe that these kinds of learning should be reserved for special groups of students.

Another way of responding to the questions participants raised about teachers and students is based on the metaphor of the Venn diagram, which is a set of overlapping circles representing different domains and their interaction. A Venn diagram of Science One would include four overlapping circles representing biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. When working completely within any isolated discipline (in a Venn diagram with only one circle), it is difficult to know what about that discipline is important and worth knowing at any given moment. It is natural, but incorrect, to expect that adding more disciplines would only compound this difficulty and make it even harder. While adding new domains to a problem does increase the total complexity of the system, it also makes it easier, not harder, to identify critical information, and especially easier to appreciate and explore interactions.

As if by magic, adding more ways of looking at a problem makes the problem space smaller and more manageable. This is not merely theory, but the self-reported experience of many students over the four decades of my teaching career. For one thing, the most important action in many kinds of complex systems tends to be in the areas of overlap between domains. This fact enormously reduces the set of potentially important information, because it tells us where to look, in turn speeding the search for missing information, increasing the frequency of successful searches, and boosting self-confidence and willingness to risk even deeper engagement in future. Once set in motion, scenarios like this can continue on their own and can multiply, even in the face of opposition. The great power of the approach is that in interdisciplinary environments, important pieces of information have meaning in more than one domain (that is what makes them important). This provides more connections and more “hooks” for memory and logic. All of these factors make the information more salient, more useful, and easier to remember, and dramatically increase the likelihood that it will be useful when needed and used appropriately.

Paradoxically, embracing the complexities of interdisciplinarity, embracing ignorance, and embracing the high-level challenges of creativity and critical thinking in our teaching can make difficult material more accessible to more kinds of students. Also paradoxically, it can also make our teaching easier because the students do so much of their own learning.

Working within the complexity of a Venn diagram is more exciting and more fun than working in any isolated domain alone. Experientially, it is less like school and more like the real world. It is engaging and consuming, and invites everyone into self-generated learning. We must keep our wits about us in multidisciplinary spaces, which are more dangerous than unidisciplinary ones because they offer more ways to fool ourselves. At the same time, these rich spaces provide more ways to know it when we fool ourselves, which is another kind of reason to keep our wits about us. The danger, I claim, is one of the attractions for both students and faculty. Success in navigating dangerous multidisciplinary terrain is one of the strong sources of the pride that we note in multidisciplinary communities of many kinds.

I have no doubt that more capable students can navigate more complex spaces than less capable students, at least in the beginning. But that is not the point of public education. The point is that anyone can learn to navigate more effectively than before, given appropriate challenges and appropriate kinds of support. I believe that the approaches I discussed in my talks provide effective challenges and provide effective support for this kind of learning, at whatever level. They are certainly worth serious consideration.

This is the very nature of surprise, which can be defined as “the sudden rupturing of expectations” (Gass, C.L. 1985. Behavioural foundations of adaptation. In P.P.G. Bateson and P.H. Klopfer (eds.). Perspectives in ethology, Vol. 6, pp. 63-107. Plenum Press, New York.).

By “everyone”, here, I mean everyone. Not just students and teachers who are together in classrooms, but whole departments, whole Faculties, whole student bodies, whole families, and whole institutions. To the extent that we are serious in our intentions, it includes whole societies, and the cultures and economies in which they are embedded. In societies in which governments believe their role is not just to pay for education but to specify it in some way, it includes politicians and government bureaucrats. To the extent that our efforts are significant enough to make a difference, it sooner or later includes the media and the listening and reading public. It includes everyone.