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Why do you need to be able to work across disciplines?

Working across disciplines is essential for university study, research and working on complex projects. Watch Dr Scott McLaughlin explain more.

To study or work with other disciplines, you need a strong understanding of what they are. You will explore this over this week of the course, and look at your own discipline in detail.

Different disciplines have standardised ways of approaching activities and thinking about problems. These standard approaches make it easier for you to develop your disciplinary knowledge, and discuss issues with others in your field.

However, some issues, such as world hunger, require the combined expertise of different discipline areas. This can be challenging as people from other disciplines might not have the same background or assumptions as you and others in your field. They might also use different terminology or methodologies.

All of this can make communication of complex issues more difficult. Even within disciplines, this can be challenging as there can be sub-disciplines that have different ways of doing things.

In the video, Dr Scott McLaughlin explains how these standardised ways of working are an aspect of your disciplinarity – the ways the field of knowledge is disciplined into standardised approaches. He then explores why this is important for interdisciplinary work.

Typical characteristics of a discipline

People working in a discipline tend to share:
  • a common language, including agreed terminology and meanings
  • common ways of measuring things (and knowing when it is meaningful to measure something), which often underpin methods
  • common frames of reference that allow easy communication of ideas.
You will explore each of these different characteristics over the rest of the course.

Why do disciplines share characteristics?

Disciplines share characteristics to make solving problems easier. From developing medical treatments to refining political policies, shared characteristics make it easier for you to communicate with others in your discipline, or pass on what you have learned.
Think of disciplines as a local dialect of knowledge. People from the same place can describe local things to each other easily because of their shared common knowledge. However, outsiders might not have this local knowledge, and therefore struggle to understand what is being discussed.

Shared characteristics between disciplines

As well as shared characteristics within a discipline, disciplines tend to group into families. These families share some common approaches, but differ in the details.
For example, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines all share traits that make them different from English Literature, although to varying degrees. They all tend to follow the scientific method, where all theories and ideas are tested and developed in the same way (you will explore this in more detail later this week).
This is how knowledge is generated in STEM, and trust in the rigour of the scientific method is a large part of how STEM researchers can feel confident in their knowledge.
However, even within STEM, you can find disciplines that are very far apart in different ways, such as molecular biology and astrophysics.

Have your say:

Throughout the course, you will have the opportunity to discuss your experiences of working across different disciplines.
Think about the questions below, then share and discuss your thoughts with other learners in the Comments.
  • What is your discipline? Is it different to the subject you study, or the area you work in?
  • Is your discipline something you feel as an ‘identity’ or something you’re just getting familiar with?
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Interdisciplinary Learning: Working Across Disciplines

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