Why is transdisciplinary education important?

The UNESCO report of the “Commission internationale sur l’éducation pour le vingt et unième siècle” emphasizes four pillars of a ‘new kind of education’. Nicolescu (1997) notes that a transdisciplinary approach can make a valuable contribution to the achievement of these pillars, concluding that the transdisciplinary vision ensures “an integral education of the human being”.

  1. Learning to know involves training in scientific methods to enable students to always ask questions, and learn how to differentiate real sources from unreliable ones. The transdisciplinary approach builds bridges between disciplines and the ‘interior capacities’ of the individual, enabling an individual to become more open to challenging existing approaches.
  2. Learning to do concerns the acquisition of a profession, necessarily entailing a phase of specialisation. In a rapidly changing world, the transdisciplinary approach can allow individuals to acquire the skills for several specialisations and occupations at the same time, encouraging flexibility and creativity.
  3. Learning to live together with goes beyond just being tolerant, and means adopting a cross-cutting approach embracing different cultures, religions, political views, and nationalities. It encourages us to understand and respect the beliefs, interests, convictions, and attitudes of others, but encourages us to examine our own too. It aims to appreciate diversity and the ability to learn from different backgrounds, breaking down barriers between individuals, and in this process helping individuals to see the world in a different way.
  4. Learning to be is a lifelong process- a “permanent apprenticeship”- where we explore what influences us and shapes our view of the world. It involves a constant questioning of our beliefs and values, as well as a recognition that students can inform teachers and societal stakeholders as much as teachers and societal stakeholders inform students. This aids with the transformation from student to member of society. Learning to be goes beyond ourselves and includes a broader perspective. There is a focus on holistic development and a broader perspective, with education going beyond the mere accumulation of knowledge.

Stahl et al. (2011) have further outlined three reasons why transdisciplinary education is important:

  1. It helps students gain a better understanding of how theirs and others’ perspectives, knowledge, and values contribute to solving problems
  2. The provision of opportunities for altering perspectives enables a process of iterative learning to take place, which leads to appreciations of how each actor’s position on an issue can change as others’ positions are revealed
  3. It enables students to learn that what they know can remain the same, but be viewed differently, as different people’s perspectives are revealed 
A man in a grey suit with a megaphone in front of a wall with yellow letters that read: there is no alternative.

Universities as agents of change

A transdisciplinary model for higher education goes beyond the artificial boundaries imposed by traditional academic organisational structures through teaching students to view problem-posing and problem-solving as an enterprise consisting of groups of many people from a diverse array of backgrounds (Ertas, 2000).

Nicolescu (1997) emphasises that if universities intend to be valid actors in pursuing a sustainable future, they must first recognise transdisciplinary knowledge. This requires opening up to civil society and other sites of new knowledge production, as well as the aim of universality -the idea that knowledge is to be shared by and available to all. This principle of universality therefore links to the aims of Utrecht University’s Open Science programme.