The Importance of interdisciplinarity, Cross-Disciplinarity and Multidisciplinarity in Education

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When I began this blog a couple of months ago I set out my stance as a proponent of interdisciplinarity in education. I am a student of history although I am increasingly discovering that it is environmental history, and related areas, that specifically interests me. Environmental history, as a discipline, has grown to involve knowledge of fields of study as diverse as historical geography, ecology, agriculture, the history and philosophy of science, biology, climate science, forestry, archaeology, anthropology, psychology, sociology and ecological and environmental economics, amongst others, and is thus an example of both multi and cross disciplinarity. I find that such an approach benefits the student as it allows an approach to learning from multiple perspectives.

Interdisciplinary studies stands independently to both cross-discipline study and multi-discipline work. Here are some definitions:

  • The interdisciplinary approach has been defined by Executive Director of the Association for Integrated Studies William H. Newell and William Green (1982) as “inquiries which critically draw upon two or more disciplines and which lead to an integration of disciplinary insights” (Haynes,2002, p.17)
  • Multidisciplinary teaching is the teaching of topics from more than one discipline in parallel to the other
  • Cross-disciplinary teaching is where one discipline is crossed with the subject matter of another.

I believe that an approach such as interdisciplinary studies enhances the educational experience and allows the student to challenge one’s own beliefs through learning not only different ‘facts’ of information from different disciplines but crucially, different methodologies and ways of thinking.

On researching for this article I found that in fact a number of higher education bodies provide courses of a directly interdisciplinary nature. An example of such a course is the BASc at University College, London – . According to the department, the scheme ‘allows students to choose a major and a minor Pathway, and study interdisciplinary core courses written to link their Arts and Science subjects in innovative ways’. The pathways include ‘Cultures’, ‘Health and Environment’, ‘Sciences and Engineering’ and ‘Societies’.  It epitomises an innovative new look at the ways we can deliver higher education.

I realise I have gone slightly off track to the usual environmental themes but I wanted to make a point in the light of some recent reading! In fact, I believe that environmental studies can and should be at the forefront of an interdisciplinary approach to learning. Indeed, Hilary Staples explained that ‘Environmental Sciences need an interdisciplinary approach due to the poor state of environmental education and the need for improvement in ecological literacy (Staples, 2005, p.6).

Interdisciplinarity encourages innovative thinking as well as a greater informed and critical approach to tackling problems of many natures. Curricula will have to be reassessed that is for sure, and I take on board that there are critics of such an approach. I certainly agree that we need to keep specialisms and should encourage those who want to specialise their learning path down a very specific line. However, I advocate the benefits of an approach that creates innovative thinkers and rewards wide interests.


Haynes, Carolyn, 2002. Innovations in Interdisciplinary Teaching, West port, CT, American Council on Education ORYX Press

Staples, Hilary, 2005. “The Integration of Biomimicry as a Solution-Oriented Approach to the Environmental Science Curriculum for High School Students.” (available at (accessed on 27/04/2013)

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