Karen Taylor serves as Director of Education and the Institute of Learning and Teaching at the International School of Geneva and Associate Professor in Practice at Durham University’s School of Education. Prior to moving to Switzerland in 2008, Dr. Taylor taught at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, and in the Liberal Studies Degree program at Georgetown University where she earned her PhD in history in 2000. Dr. Taylor’s research interests focus on eighteenth-century French pedagogical writings, Global Citizenship Education, Intercultural Learning, Inclusion, and Plurilingual Education.
The traditional division of systems of education into disciplinary silos has complex, long-standing, historical roots but also reflects what seems to be a human tendency – to compartmentalise thinking. Much of the contemporary discourse in education urges us to break down those barriers and create conditions for transdisciplinary learning and teaching so that students will be prepared for a world marked by vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The world may look like a rather discouraging place at the moment. And yet there is as much reason to hope as there may be to despair. It could be that a convergence of various crises – be they philosophical, conceptual, economic, or political – just might give educators and the systems in which we function, the impetus to enact purposeful change.
There appears to have been a general consensus for some time now that we need to transform education generally, rethink the nature of assessment, and ground learning and teaching in 21st-century skills: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. The ways in which we were forced to adapt learning and teaching during the period of the pandemic give further weight to the necessity of flexibility and adaptability in our thinking and in our practice as educators. It brought heightened awareness of the need to take well-being into account. ChatGPT and a range of other AI tools that have burst onto the scene similarly call into question our habitual ways of looking at learning and teaching. Finally, a global discourse on diversity, equity, and inclusion has haltingly nudged us toward deeper sensitivity to intercultural learning and recognition of intersectionality in student and teacher identities.
It strikes me, then, that the moment is ripe to break down disciplinary silos, to promote student choice and agency, to bring together a multiplicity of perspectives to problem-solving, to challenge traditional hierarchies of knowledge, and to make the learning experience for students at school or in higher education more meaningful. We should not underestimate the young. Wherever they are on the globe they are fully aware of the interconnectedness that marks our world and therefore, implicitly or explicitly, the transdisciplinary thinking that is required to solve complex global problems. I would argue then that, as educators, it is our responsibility to actively engage with them in this changing world, to exercise our own agency as learners, and to rethink our notions of classroom autonomy and pedagogy.
To say that effective teaching is about the co-creation of knowledge rather than the transmission of knowledge by an autonomous teacher behind the closed door of a classroom is not a new idea but old habits die hard. Whatever our specific context, as we work towards curriculum redesign it will be important to support practitioners in giving up ownership of their classroom and their discipline. Focusing on essential questions that transcend disciplinary boundaries is work that could be undertaken across departments and faculties but requires support as it challenges traditional views of pedagogy and the role of professors in the life of the university. It is a change management process that calls for the identification of both technical and adaptive challenges. Transdisciplinary approaches necessitate collaboration and the skills that are associated with it. Such skills must be learned and will come more easily to some educators than to others. In essence, the same 21st-century skills we wish to nurture in students we will need to acquire ourselves and model for them.
The International School of Geneva and Durham University (UK) have been running an initial teacher training programme together since 2010. Our focus is preparing students for a career in international education. Successful students leave the programme with a UK qualification (Post Graduate Certificate in Education International) an International Baccalaureate Educator Certificate, and a suite of micro-certificates that make them attractive candidates for international schools. The programme has been successful and is unique in combining Durham’s master’s level academic modules with Ecolint’s intensive, highly individualised professional module. Our specific context is international education but, in many respects, this is an almost meaningless concept in the sense that public or private, school or university, in many places across the globe classroom practitioners are working with culturally, linguistically, and neurodiverse student bodies whose cognitive and socio-emotional needs we have a responsibility to meet.
One of the implicit challenges in the transdisciplinary transformation of education is to find a balance between discipline-specific content and universal or essential concepts that are transdisciplinary by nature. The discipline-specific content of initial teacher education programmes is in many ways straightforward: managing a classroom, understanding curriculum, structuring lessons, using diverse teaching methods, designing assessments, engaging in reflective practice, etc. In redesigning our curriculum with the multiple implications of interconnectedness in mind, our aim is to develop a structure built on core competencies drawn in part from UNESCO:
- Interacting with the world (systems thinking)
- Interacting with others (communication, collaboration, and cooperation)
- Inclusive pedagogy and
As we reshape our initial teacher education curriculum, our challenge is to find the balance between the content (what and how one teaches) and the purpose (why we teach). Ultimately, we are seeking to conceptualise and implement teacher education that prepares practitioners to promote social justice by giving them the skills and competencies they will need to create a learning environment that is pedagogically sensitive to cultural, linguistic, and neuro-diversity and that will develop in learners the complex problem-solving skills they will need in the future. It is a learning process for all of us that involves a reconsideration of our stance as practitioners and the way we approach initial teacher education.