The deficiencies of disciplines

Image of timetable
Timetables mark the separate territories in students’ thought processes
Mr S Woods, Director of English

Disciplines make the academic world go around. Faculties teach them, grades and degrees are conferred in them, teaching positions are advertised in them. The whole high-school world runs on timetables divided up by disciplines. The Lilliputians thought Gulliver’s watch was his god; and, as his fob was to him, our timetables — the temporal distillation of many centuries of disciplinary thinking — are to us.

The Year 10  girls whose lockers are outside my office look at their timetables almost as often as they consult their phones, because their lives are run by them. But disciplines do not just shape the girls’ routines, they also shape their thought processes. The lines that delineate the lessons on their timetables also demarcate separate territories in their developing intellects. The girls learn an English way of doing things, a History way, a Physics way and a German way. The overlaps and complementarities between these ways understandably go unnoticed, because to the girls the differences between the disciplines are manifest: different rooms, different textbooks, different teachers, different ways of doing things, and most likely, different grades.

Don’t get me wrong; I come to praise disciplines, not to bury them. After all, thinking in terms of disciplines has enabled the specialisation, expertise and analytical rigour on which our intellectual, technological and artistic modernity are founded. By working within discipline confines, specialist physicists, linguists and historians have added to the sum of our knowledge and skills incalculably. Our girls do great work because we inculcate in them the cultures and repertoires that our specialties bring.

Quote1A strengthening current in the academic world, however, suggests that the sharp focus enabled by working exclusively within disciplines also fosters a kind of myopia, obscuring the connections and interrelatedness between fields which have been constructed over centuries as discrete and even competing republics. The main contention of this article, therefore, is that schools and parents need to help students to look not just within but also beyond and between the long-standing but nonetheless arbitrary boundaries between academic disciplines to what has been termed — rather unappealingly — transdisciplinarity.

Transdisciplinarity differs from its prefix-siblings multi and inter in that it starts not with disciplines that we might contrive to combine, but with problems we seek to solve. A transdisciplinary approach draws on whatever solutions and skills any or all of the traditional disciplines might offer us, but also draws on the kinds of thought that might lie outside conventional disciplines.

Transdisciplinary writers and thinkers often use metaphors which cast practitioners as ‘the conductor of an orchestra’ (Morin, 2008, p. 27), marshalling diverse areas of expertise into a systematic whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. Less eruditely, transdisciplinary approaches can be envisaged as like that stage of a heist movie in which the brains of the operation gathers a team of experts in a range of nefarious fields, each essential to the whole of the caper, but none capable of pulling it off alone. With his customary clarity, Daniel Pink argues that ‘what’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis — seeing the big picture and, crossing boundaries, being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole’ (2005, p. 66). Reminiscent of the aforementioned conductor analogy, he calls this faculty ‘symphony’ (2005, p. 66) and includes it in his list of the six senses required in a world where specialised tasks will either be outsourced or turned into an app.

Pink’s apprehension about an imminent specialist-created but specialist-unfriendly future is shared by proponents of transdisciplinarity, notably the Romanian theoretical physicist, and champion of the transdiciplinary movement, Basarab Nicolescu.

Nicolescu responds to the now-truism that we will all have to change jobs and careers several times in our working lives with the caution that doing so ‘is practically impossible in the context of an accelerated super-specialization’ (2012, p. 11). He argues for a complement to traditional discipline-based study in schools, stating bluntly that ‘excessive, precocious specialization should be outlawed in a world which is in rapid change’ (2012, p. 14). This does not mean that schools should become specialists in generality, churning out jacks-of–all-trades. Rather, proponents see their approach as an adjunct, ‘an indispensable complement to the disciplinary approach’ (Nicolescu, 2012, p. 11), as ‘one cannot do open heart surgery if one has not learned surgery; one cannot solve a third-degree equation if one has not learned mathematics; one cannot be a producer without knowing theatrical techniques’(Nicolescu, 2012, pp. 13–14). It does mean, however, that space — actual and intellectual — should be found for students to pursue enquiries through, across, between, and beyond the realms of the conventional subject divides.

Quote2My experience in schools, however, is that disciplinarity rules. It runs so deep that girls derive their identities from them, as in ‘I’m a Humanities student’, or ‘I’m a Science nerd’. From inside these silo mindsets, it is unsurprising that teachers are sometimes heard bemoaning the girls’ inability to make connections between what they do in different subjects. Last week I spoke to a teacher of Science who revealed that girls abandoned the basics of English grammar when writing reports for her subject, seemingly under the impression that they no longer applied in the non-English realm of Science. Many girls show great skill in the logical setting out of Mathematics problems, but do not see that the same patterns of logic underpin the construction of analytical paragraphs in English and the Humanities. I had a chat to my Year 10 class this week, urging them to use nominalisation — a tool for conciseness in their writing — in their other subjects, fully aware that they were about to file it under ‘English’ alone. I would argue that it is hard for the girls to pare back the disciplinary differences to reveal the fundamental commonalities beneath the demarcated surface, but it is important, not just for their academic success, but on a much grander scale, that we help them to do so.

As is often the case, it is the exception that proves the rule. I have been gratified to note recently the girls in my classes making connections between what we are doing and what they are doing in other disciplines. The Latin scholars in my Year 10 class have enjoyed pulling Macbeth words apart using their classical grounding. A Year 12 student last year brought her Music Extension expertise to class one day, demonstrating, better than I could, how altering the soundtrack could be used to sway film viewers to a particular response. One of my Year 12 girls this year applied her musicality to the rhythm of a love poem we were studying to make a valid and imaginative point that my narrow expertise prevented me from seeing. The girls can do it, and enjoy the experience, but it remains novel. Essentially, the girls are shifting modes from the traditional tendency to extrapolate from one disciplinary perspective to one in which they interpolate to a fertile new area that lies in the interstices between two or more disciplinary perspectives. Transdisciplinary experts call this kind of interpolative approach the logic of the excluded middle.

Philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin (2008) argues that the astounding complexity of our modern world has given rise to problems of equivalent complexity: ‘polycrises’. Such polycrises are intractable when viewed from the single perspectives of economics, psychology, quantum physics, or biology, but solutions may be found that draw selectively from these and other fields and synthesise them into a novel approach. My homespun heist metaphor seems apt here: there is a need for someone to be the ‘brains’ of the operation — for the kind of thinkers who can see that the solutions to polycrises like disease, conflict, debt, planetary degradation, access, and inequality may well lie in the overlaps between the disciplines. The safecracker, the geek, and the getaway driver are all well and good, but they are useless without the one who has a moment of serendipitous insight that pulls the whole job together. Pink handily sums up this transdisciplinary skill as a ‘meta-ability [that] goes by many names — systems thinking, gestalt thinking, holistic thinking [or] simply as seeing the big picture’ (2005, p. 137).

The strength of our disciplines at Girls Grammar is at the core of our drive to be a leader in exceptional scholarship. Increasingly, though, the School is finding spaces and ways to augment this strength through the transdisciplinary. Having paired House Group teachers from different disciplines shows the Year 8 and Year 10 girls how these different areas of expertise can complement each other. The Philosophy of Learning program in Year 8 exposes and develops the kinds of thinking skills and dispositions that run through and beyond all of the subjects the girls study in their time here. Every Faculty now has a team member from both Differentiated Studies and Technology Studies, adding a different set of disciplinary perspectives and methods to their repertoire. When they arrive in 2015, Year 7 girls will undertake a specifically transdisciplinary subject in their first year at the School. Currently being designed by a multidisciplinary team of teachers, this — as yet unnamed — subject will follow the transdisciplinary approach by starting with problems and drawing on solutions irrespective of discipline.


In the bigger picture of the girls’ post-disciplinary lives, a transdisciplinary mindset will allow them to live the principles of the Brisbane Girls Grammar School Strategic Design. It will clearly allow them to put the ‘judicious’ in ‘judicious and ethical engagement with the world’, but it will also enable them to press on with concept of ‘life-wide learning’ articulated in the Design. I have to admit to an initial struggle with the semantic shift from the traditional notion of things being life-long to one in which they are life-wide. But my excursion into the ideas of transdisciplinarity has given me a clearer notion of why wide works. In Nicolescu’s (2012, p. 11) words:

It will mean the emergence of continually connected beings, who are able to adapt themselves to the changing exigencies of professional life, and who are endowed with a permanent flexibility which is always oriented towards the actualization of their interior potentialities.


Morin, Edgar. (2008). The reform of thought, transdisciplinarity and the reform of the university. In B. Nicolescu (Ed.), Transdisciplinarity: Theory and practice (pp. 23–32). New Jersey: Hampton Press.

Nicolescu, B. (2012). The need for transdisciplinarity in higher education in a globalized world. The Atlas: Transdisciplinary Journal of Engineering and Science, 3, 11–18.

Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.



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