Interdisciplinarity and Education

Our research students are putting on an interdisciplinary conference on education [1]. This is something I very much welcome, but I don’t imagine it to be straightforward to get agreement on how or why education research should be an interdisciplinary undertaking.

In my own case I came to education research around mid career through teaching and researching my teaching as this was the usual route at the time. I did not give much thought to education as a field of study and assumed it was inter disciplinary [2] in the sense that you dipped into whatever research gave you some insight into the questions / problems you were facing. For example, I became interested in online discussion and took some inspiration from the idea of communicative language learning (which had been much touted in language teaching [3]) and aligned this with a concept of social constructivism which I thought had something to do with Vygotsky – though to be honest I did not interrogate original sources too closely relying in particular on scholars such as Neil Mercer [4] and others who offered a constructivist approach to classroom talk.

I believed that I was carrying out educational research– a kind of action oriented inquiry into practice [4] – rather than discipline research into the sociology / psychology or philosophy of education. This I think was the widespread view of my colleagues in teacher education at the time and reflected a view that we should not take theories generated in ‘social science’ on trust; whatever anyone proposed about teaching needed to be tested in practice and must contribute to desirable outcomes – and we were going to interrogate what desirable outcomes were, thank you very much. I was, by inclination, suspicious of research into education that had not been carried out by practitioners or with teachers. I was for example familiar with some of the sociology literature, for example Corrigan and Willis both wrote insightful books to show how underachievement and the marginalisation of lads is ‘constructed’ [5]. When it came to learning to teach such books offered very little that I could use and to be honest the sociological insight got in my way. I can look back now more kindly on the sociology of education. I can see that these books should have been used to inform policy makers of the consequences of the institutions they had set up and I could see that the historic aim of social research is to say ‘how things are’ – what we choose to do about it is another matter. Some books on the sociology of education are of limited value in the classroom but may be that is not why they were written.

Of course not all is rosy with this action oriented educational research. One particular weakness is that we can be cavalier about the literature we quote. For example myself and colleagues call in Vygotsky to justify approaches to learning based on participation in a community of practice as well as more instructional ones, and in particular interactive theories of instruction. Surely the same theory cannot cross over into two very different settings? I suspect, too, that because educational research is not rooted in a field we are more susceptible to fashions, for example a head of steam builds up now and then around a single idea such as community of practice, which is adopted by nearly everyone, and then dropped when we move onto the next big thing. There is also a view held by some that what really matters is trial and error in the classroom, and we should ignore ‘theory’, I simply don’t hold to that at all.

So what has educational practice got to learn from discipline research? Well here are some examples. In spite of what I said earlier the sociology of education research has made a difference in that it has shown us that cultures are ‘real’ and they really do ‘operate on’ us as learners. Once we had a story that intelligence was all about what lay in the head of the person, intelligence was an innate capacity to be clever or not, sociology of education has told us that this is not the case and good schools and good teachers work on the culture of learning in the classroom as much as learning at the level of the indiuvdual; we all unselfconsciously talk about the culture of learning in ways we would not have done without the input of sociology. In contrast psychology got us off to a bad start by over focusing on the individual and generated all too often a simplistic behaviourist approach to learning. However it has been social psychology (the work of Vygostky, Lewin and more recently I have found the input of Valsiner useful) that has the best explanations of how learning is both an individual achievement and that of a group and or culture. It also needs to be said that psychology’s focus on ‘what is in the head of the learner’ has been hugely important in the understanding of special needs, for example our understanding of autism. Finally I would also make a plea that as educational researchers we need to be more historically aware. In the field of technology we are for ever talking about paradigm shifts and new learning theories – but the problems of learning and knowing are age old and we all too easily forget that.

My younger self should have taken discipline research more seriously but I think those working in social science disciplines should ‘get their hands dirty’ with action oriented classroom research from time to time if they are writing about education. It will stop them saying things about teaching and learning which are simply silly, it will alert them to what teachers find important, and the experience will pull them back from proposing solutions that practitioners know would not work.

I am very much looking forward to attending the conference and to hearing more from our students.

[1] Go to

[2] Definitions vary, but broadly we can think about:

Crossdisciplinary as involving a team from different disciplines working together but hanging on their own discipline standpoints.

Interdisciplinary as involving a deeper level of exchange between disciplines and perhaps using the fruits of collaboration to shift the boundaries of one’s own disciplines.

Transdisciplinary as involving a more full on willingness to engage with problems rather than disciplines and to create new conceptions of knowledge.

These terms are mostly discussed in the context of research teams but these are of course standpoints that an individual researcher can take.

[3] A key text here was Widdowson, H. (1978) Teaching language as communication, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Mercer, N. (1995) The Guided Construction of Knowledge: talk amongst teachers and learners. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

[5] See of example Carr, W., & Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical. Education, knowledge and action research. Lewes: Falmer.

[6] See:

Corrigan, P. (1979) Schooling the Bash Street Kids, London: Macmillan.

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to labour. How working class children get working class jobs, New York: Colombia University.

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