Schools are quite often like those kids who won’t let their peas touch their carrots. Let me explain.
When I was a kid, there was a time when I didn’t like to mix my food. Potatoes had their designated spot. Peas had their spot. Carrots has their spot too. There were strict rules on my plates that none of these should ever overstep their boundaries. They must be kept separate at all costs and any infraction resulted in a personal boycott of eating anything else on the plate. To me, breaking this rule had some magical (or at least psychological) effect on the plate, turning it instantly from a plate of food to garbage. Everybody knows that you should not eat garbage.
In time, I moved beyond this, and I learned to enjoy soups, stews and others rich blends of foods and flavors. I had no idea what I was missing before. It was just that I had this strong conviction about the rules of food. The food tasted fine when I kept them separate, but a strict adherence to that rule would have prevented me from experiencing the joys of countless wonderful meals.
Formal education largely buys into the peas and carrot separation laws. It is just that we don’t do it with food. Instead, we do it with knowledge. We divide knowledge up into neat and tidy categories that we call disciplines or fields of study. We often hire different people to be in charge of each of these categories that we constructed over the last several centuries. We rarely mix them.
Of course, there is mixing that takes places. We call it things like interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary studies. Yet, there are plenty of skeptics and critics of going to far with this crazy mixing idea. As such, we embrace micro mixing. We take one carrot, one pea, and we courageously show our forward-thinking spirit by eating both of them at the same time. Then we go back to our pea/carrot separation happy place.
Don’t get me wrong. Disciplines have their role in society and in schools. Yet, they only represent one of many ways to approach knowledge and learning. In addition, solving challenges and opportunities in life come from one’s ability to embrace interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and anti-disciplinary ways of thinking and problem solving. Only I’m not seeing too many examples of schools where people are thinking deeply about this and its implications for how we shape the learning environment. We dip our toes in the water, but diving into this world of mixed disciplines is rare.
There are wonderfully interesting exceptions to this. There are schools on all levels that are taking these ideas seriously. They are creating and imagining new ways to approach knowledge, working across disciplinary boundaries and even recognizing that some questions and ideas don’t fit neatly into any of the existing disciplinary boundaries. I tend to think that it is valuable for people to learn many approaches to knowledge and expertise; to discover through experience the power of disciplinary thinking, to learn about the value of interdisciplinary problem-solving, and to recognize that these categories are human constructs and some challenges or opportunities may call for us to set aside disciplinary categories and ways of thinking.