For some time I have thought that one of the major barriers to improving/innovation in learning and teaching has been the consistency of practice and mindset held by discipline based groups. Now I’ve got some suggestion of a research basis for this view. This post attempts to explain my view, outline the research basis and draw implications for the practice of learning and teaching at Universities.

The problems with discipline-based groups

Almost without exception, academic staff at Universities are organised into discipline-based groups. All the computer scientists are in one unit, the management folk in another and yet another for the historians. These discipline groups generally have a fairly large common perspective on research and learning and teaching. They tend to teach based on methods they’ve experienced and all the members within a discipline group tend to have experience the same methods.

Anything outside of that experience is seen as strange and in the absence of outside knowledge they aren’t even aware that there are alternatives.

For example, way back when I was a member of an information technology group that were thrown together into an organisational unit with journalists, cultural studies and other decidedly non-technical, non-autistic disciplines. At some later stage I was responsible for supporting the learning and teaching of these different groups. Those staff from a more “human communications” based discipline, almost without exception, placed a great deal of emphasis on face-to-face tutorials with a heavy emphasis on student/student and student/teacher discussion. Which made it very difficult to come up with approaches for distance education students. The IT folk without that history, didn’t have the same problem. Neither group, without interactions with the other group, would normally have thought of the other approach to teaching.

Discipline-based groups tend to exclude awareness of alternatives, the tend to emphasise the importance of shared experience. They make it difficult to be aware of alternatives.

This is particularly problematic because, almost without exception, most of the major projects that attempt to improve and/or innovate around learning and teaching are discipline-based. This fundamental assumption, in my mind has always, limited the chances of true improvement or innovation. It limits the chance of them escaping the past.

Related to this practice is the suggestion that instructional/learning/curriculum designers should be physically located within faculties or departments. i.e. that they should work predominantly with folk from within a particular discipline (or set of disciplines). Over time, because of the nature of the work (e.g. these instructional designers will start to publish more within the literature of a particular discipline), I believe that this practice has the likely outcome of further constraining innovation.

What others have said

In a recent blog post Dave Snowden has suggested that perspective shift is one of the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for innovation. Discipline-based attempts improving learning and teaching make this very difficult as they generally only involve people who have very similar perspectives.

Dave’s blog post mentioned above includes a link to an MP3 file of a talk he gave in Melbourne. I fully recommend people listen to this, even though it is disappointing to have missed out on the end of the talk due to flat batteries. This blog post which gives one summary on Dave’s talk offers some related insights.

This morning’s post from the Tomorrow’s Professor Mailing List was titled “Do Faculty Interactions Among Diverse Students Enhance Intellectual Development”. It was looking at the practice in the USA of having racially mixed classes and its effect on intellectual development. While it may be a leap (a leap too far?) to apply some of the findings to improving teaching, I certainly see some connection and value in doing so.

The post was an excerpt from

Chapter 4, Accounting for Diversity Within the Teaching and Learning Paradigm, in the book: Driving Change through Diversity and Globalization, Transformative Leadership in the Academy, by James A. Anderson, professor of psychology and Vice President for Student Success and the Vice Provost for Institutional Assessment and Diversity at the University of Albany

One of the foundation pieces of evidence the post is based upon is from the following paper

Anthony Lising Antonio, Mitchell J. Chang, Kenji Hakuta, David A. Kenny, Shana Levin,
and Jeffrey F. Milem, Effects of Racial Diversity on Complex Thinking in College Students, Psychological Science, 15(8): 507-510.

The paper aims to examine the effects of diversity on integrative complexity. Integrative complexity is the degree to which cognitive style involves differentiation and integration of multiple perspectives. The idea is that the level of IC has the following effects:

  • Low integrative complexity – take a less complicated approach to reasoning, decision making and evaluating information.
  • High integrative complexity – evaluation is reflective, involves various perspectives, solutions and discussions.

The paper’s findings included

  • Racial diversity in a group of white students led to greater level of cognitive complexity.
  • Racial diversity of a student’s friends had a greater impact on integrative complexity than the diversity of the group.

Some of the other points in the paper

  • Groupthink.
    The cohesiveness and solidarity that arises from a common group is a foundation for unanimity of opinion which results in poor decision making.
  • Minority influence.
    Presence of group members who hold divergent opinions lead to increased divergent thinking and perspective taking. Interaction with the minority enhances the integrative complexity of the members of the group who hold the majority opinion.

Implications of learning and teaching

In summary, at a high level

  • Homogeneous groups considered harmful.
    Any approach to improving learning and teaching which uses homogeneous groups will limit, possibly even prevent, innovation and improvement as the group will get bogged down in group think. Given that the majority of such projects within universities involve homogeneous groups, it questions some of the fundamental operations of universities.
  • Actively design projects to encourage positive interactions amongst people with diverse backgrounds.
    The positive flip side is that projects should actively seek diversity in its membership and engage in processes that enable positive interactions between these diverse group members. i.e. not an attempt to encourage group think or cohesion amongst the diverse members, but instead to leverage the diversity for something truly innovative.

    Hopefully those that are familiar with the unit I currently work with can see why I value and encourage the diversity of the unit and think any attempt to encourage uniformity of background and thinking is a hugely negative thing.

From these two observations a number of potential implications can be drawn

  • Discipline-based innovation in L&T will be less than successful.
  • Top-down innovations in L&T will be less than successful (as they embed an assumption that a very small, generally similar, group can make decisions and get everyone to buy into the group think.)
  • Any committee or group that contains members that have the same discipline or organisational experience (e.g. everyone has been at University X for 10+ years) will generate sub-optimal outcomes.
  • The best and most innovative teachers will have the most diverse set of teaching influences and experiences. (The diffusion of innovations literature backs this up).
  • Organisational units (e.g. teaching and learning or academic staff development units) which all have pretty much the same background (e.g. all graduated with Masters in Instructional Design) or same experience (all publish in the same set of conferences or journals) will be less innovative than they could be.
  • An L&T support unit that doesn’t regularly, actively and deeply engage with the L&T context of their organisation are destined to do things that are less innovative and appropriate.

Of course I believe this, over the last 5 years I’ve occasionally attempt to get the REACT process off the ground as an approach to improving learning and teaching. A key aim of that project was to

opening up the design of teaching to enable collaboration with and input from a diverse set of peers;