Interdisciplinary Expertise in Universities

Complex real-world problems do not align neatly with academic disciplines. Many advances in knowledge production and application depend on high-trust interdisciplinary collaborations requiring sustained interactions between academic researchers and the many other people and organisations involved in designing, making and testing systems, services and products. This requires people skilled in working across diverse knowledge boundaries, using new combinations of disciplinary, interdisciplinary and local knowledge. Working across disciplinary boundaries is very challenging, requiring capabilities that are often ill-defined and learnt by trial and error. Lack of a principled knowledge-base for developing interdisciplinary expertise creates severe challenges for research and innovation teams and limits progress on ‘wicked problems’. This raises three key questions:

  • What exactly constitutes the expertise needed to work across disciplinary boundaries?
  • How do researchers and university students learn to work across disciplinary boundaries and develop this expertise?
  • How can the development of interdisciplinary expertise be better supported in research teams and university courses?

This project addresses these questions in the context of researching and learning in Multidisciplinary Research Centres.

The theoretical foundations for the project use some recent, radical developments in theories of expertise and learning led by Reimann and Markauskaite, in which greater weight is given to the social, material and digital circumstances in which people use and develop their knowledge. The project adapts, tests and extends key ideas about actionable knowledge, epistemic fluency and expertise arising from recent research by Markauskaite and Goodyear.

In this project, we conceptualise and study interdisciplinary work and learning at three interconnected levels that broadly mirror the main strands of human cognitive–cultural development:

  • Macro level: A sociocultural focus to develop deep, systematic insights into key features of interdisciplinary work and learning as they emerge in epistemic cultures. We do this by tracing and depicting characteristic structures and ways of carrying out interdisciplinary work and learning in R&D teams and in project-based university courses.
  • Meso level: A socio-material focus to understand what teams actually do when they engage in authentic interdisciplinary activities, by investigating enacted material aspects of their knowledge work and learning.
  • Micro level: A socio-cognitive focus to understand what kinds of capabilities—personal resourcefulness—enable team members to participate in, and contribute to, shared interdisciplinary knowledge work and learning. For this, we zoom in on cognitive aspects of individual learning in situated interdisciplinary teamwork and trace what kinds of personal resources are entailed in participants’ contributions to joint knowledge constructing actions and discourse.

To enable and support the development of interdisciplinary expertise, we work on four connected strands of research activity, aligned to four project aims or strands:

1.         To explain in detail how interdisciplinary cultures form and function, by capturing and mapping the main epistemic features and mechanisms that characterise interdisciplinary knowledge work, expertise, teaching and learning (Strand 1).

2.         To identify how learning is woven into the on-going everyday work of interdisciplinary R&D, and to establish the main epistemic features of productive learning activities and environments (Strand 2).

3.         To discover how team members’ personal resourcefulness interacts with joint learning and shared construction of interdisciplinary knowledge (Strand 3).

4.         To combine the discoveries from the first three strands and co-develop, test and disseminate key resources for the improvement of interdisciplinary research management and leadership and interdisciplinary education in universities (Strand 4).

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