As a child, I remember browsing through one of my favorite encyclopedias called ¿Sabes Quién? (Do you know who?). I remember how ardently my cousins, friends and I discussed the skills and interest the greatest people in the past had. This is, I think, the closest thing to talking about Pokémon and their powers, in my childhood version.
While we would always indulge in wondering how Da Vinci’s life as a polymath was like since he was outstanding in invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and calligraphy; I still remember my fascination about imaging what it’d be like to have the Persian Al-Biruni as a teacher, and learn about everything he excelled at: physics, mathematics, astronomy, natural sciences, history, and language.
The word transdisciplinary may not have been spoken at that time, and I may not have been able to pronounce it if I had ever attempted to utter it, but my cousins, friends, and I knew that those people we talked about enjoyed having a slash career; that having multiple vocations at the same time made them remarkable. Clearly, if some of the greatest polymaths were not satisfied with having just one title in their career, acknowledging that we must be versatile learners today should not be so hard.
Later on, I had a brilliant science teacher in high school who was always talking about arts and language in every experiment she had us do. Once she was asked why she insisted in making us see how X and Y were related, and her answer is one of the sentences that has remained with me since: “because the more we know how things work together, the more we will not be blinded by confusion… Our knowledge needs to be explored and stored in order,” she concluded.
Now that I am an educator and have developed a deep passion for learning from and with others, I am aware of the way many teachers are working hard towards generating learning experiences that involve a focus on concepts, understandings, or processes through the marriage of various subjects. Authentic and relevant learning is rooted in real-world experiences in which learners need to use a variety of abilities and different information from various areas of knowledge to pose questions, and find answers to questions- not only and questions they might have about content, but also about the interaction of knowledge they perceive.
Knowledge and learning do not happen in isolation, and are not confined by traditional subjects- they are supported and enriched by each of them. Thus, as it is commonly expressed, the idea of transdisciplinary essentially means connecting all the disciplines by a unifying issue or topic of inquiry, and going beyond all the disciplines through their links and relationships.
According to Greenwich Public Schools, the transdisciplinary approach promotes depth of understanding as well as adaptability to skills needed to allow students to solve real world problems, and to allow them to authentically create and build their own ideas. As a learner, visiting the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, was one of my strongest transdisciplinary experiences, and an example of what I am trying to explain.
I remember being at The Alhambra, listening to the tour guide’s explanation about the spiritual nature of mathematics. While I was busy and fascinated wondering ‘how many symmetries do these walls have?’, I could not help but wonder whether I had the language to classify and talk about the symmetries of the walls; and with tiny artist kicks, a third question emerged: ‘can different processes of transformation be applied to an object without changing its appearance?’ “The beauty of the Alhambra, the tour guide said, lies in the fact that we do not have individual shapes: the walls are hosting a dance of patterns repeating on a plan.” The Alhambra, built in the XIII and XIV centuries, is a symbol of the Arab conquest in Spain, an extraordinary piece of Muslim art that depicts how Muslims have abstained from painting figures of people and animals believing that the depiction of images can lead to idolatry, so they channel their artistic energy into the creation of beautiful and complex tile patterns. Remembering this experience always makes me think how the statement ‘when something is true mathematically, it is true forever’ would be a great central idea/statement of inquiry.
[Mathematics, language, art, history]
In moments like this, Oscar Wilde’s words are perfect: “I can resist everything except [temptation] an opportunity for learning ”. Thus, every time that I confront the need of planning learning experiences, I think at how many connections the contexts I have chosen allows students to make. I like to ponder how may skills from multiple subjects they can employ. I enjoy thinking about how using the language as a forum and opportunity to use what they know to communicate ideas enhances the relationships we all can have in the classroom. I try hard to think how reaching out to other subjects to use their particular skills and information will help them express their ideas clearly. This is important for me as a language teacher, because, for language learners, there is nothing worse than feeling they do not have any ideas at all, and if I encourage students to dig into what they have learned in other subjects they will always have something to say.
This is one of the questions that are currently making me wonder about the transdisciplinary approach in the IB DP Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course:
What impact on inquiry would working an various *Ways of Knowing (WOK) at the same time when studying a specific **Area of Knowledge (AOK) to see how the relationships between the WAO interact as knowledge is appreciated through the lenses of each AOK?
Teachers now welcome curiosity and imagination in the learning experiences they generate; and they do because they are aware that the co-construction of knowledge begins with experiencing what one can do with the information and skills one possesses. As living beings that use their roots and branches to feed from past knowledge and reach out to future possibilities, our natural desire for acquiring and figuring out what to do with the knowledge should be a common habit in our journey.
*[WOK- Emotion, faith, imagination, intuition, language, memory, reason, sense perception]
**[AOK- The arts, ethics, history, human sciences, indigenous knowledge systems, mathematics, the natural sciences, religious knowledge systems]