Research Summary

Teacher and student responses to interdisciplinary aspects of sustainability education: what do we really know?

Interdisciplinary Teaching Poses Challenges

Environmental Education Research

Historically, educators have considered an interdisciplinary approach necessary when teaching about sustainability, but very little research has been done about how teachers and learners respond to the interdisciplinary aspect of sustainability education. This study looked at two interdisciplinary teaching programs and asked how successful they were at implementing an interdisciplinary approach.

Interdisciplinarity is considered valuable in sustainability education because the topic of sustainability is so complex and multifaceted that it requires an integrated approach to understand the many different perspectives that surround related issues. The researchers distinguished between interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches, suggesting that interdisciplinary programs are distinguished by “their deliberate choice to study issues from a variety of perspectives and to integrate insights from a range of academic disciplines.” A multidisciplinary approach, by contrast, describes a learning environment in which more than one subject is taught at the same time or in sequence, but that fails to make connections between the disciplines.

The two case studies examined in this article are two master’s courses in sustainability education, one in England and one in China. The researcher conducted semi-structured interviews with 16 students and eight staff of the English program and 14 students and six staff of the Chinese program to “find out [about] their experiences of and perspectives on their courses.” The researcher also conducted document analysis to develop an understanding of the course content.

The English case study examined a course that emphasized and made explicit its interdisciplinary goals. The most explicitly interdisciplinary unit in the course was a unit entitled “Science and Culture in Education for Sustainability.” The unit’s goal was “to help develop awareness and understanding of how scientific and cultural thinking are inextricably linked, interrelated and complementary rather than conflicting.” The researcher found that students had differing reactions to the interdisciplinary nature of the topic, with some welcoming the differing perspectives and finding them enlightening, while others found them confusing and frustrating. The professors interviewed by the researcher observed that the scientifically oriented students responded more positively to the interdisciplinary inclusion of cultural and social sciences than the humanities students did to the inclusion of science in the curriculum. One teacher attributed this to the fact that science students seemed to passionately care about and want to solve the problems that they have seen in the environment.

The Chinese program faced different barriers to implementing an interdisciplinary approach. One barrier related to achieving cooperation between teachers of different disciplines and addressing political power dynamics among teachers within the university. The researcher observed that the large number of teachers involved in teaching the course tended toward a more multidisciplinary approach (adding up several areas of knowledge without linking them together) than an interdisciplinary approach. Some teachers were able to make their own lessons interdisciplinary, including a chemistry professor who provided “very clear examples of the way in which science could be integrated into practical educational projects that had a strong social purpose.” In this case study, the hierarchies and power dynamics between the different disciplines discouraged one professor from expanding the number of teachers collaborating in her program.

The researcher’s examination of these two case studies suggests that, despite the recognition of the importance of interdisciplinarity in sustainability education, the current structure and culture of higher education organizations do not make it easy to implement interdisciplinary curricula. In addition, to achieve interdisciplinarity, teachers need to be able to make their own curricula interdisciplinary and not solely rely on the involvement of teachers from many different backgrounds. It is also important to note that students who are accustomed to more traditional teaching styles tied to just one discipline may find interdisciplinary learning difficult. Interdisciplinarity is important in sustainability education, but it must be implemented with planning and care to ensure interdisciplinarity rather than multidisciplinarity.

The Bottom Line

Environmental educators often tout the interdisciplinary nature of the environmental field. This research demonstrates that, while interdisciplinary thinking may be important, both practical and cultural barriers can prevent true interdisciplinary cooperation. These findings serve as a reminder that presenting information to students with an interdisciplinary approach is not as simple as inviting experts from a variety of fields to offer their perspective. Cutting across disciplinary lines requires an openness and willingness among both teachers and students that may need to be cultivated.