We are living in what the sociologists called “the society of acceleration and uncertainty”. Within it, we are observing the rising of new “disciplines” (such as climatology, artificial intelligence, data science & computation or digital humanities) and new modus operandi of science research and its communication (multiple actors, inter-multi-trans-disciplinarity, open science...). 

This brings new challenges to current forms of organization and transmission of knowledge. 

What knowledge, skills, attitudes and values will today's students need to thrive in and shape their world?
How can instructional systems develop these knowledge, skills, attitudes and values effectively?

Questions launched by the OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030 project.

Unfortunately, our educational systems are rarely involved in a discussion or reflection about those issues. They often remain rigid and do not appear able to keep the pace of change. As a result, a serious gap emerges between what the traditional educational organisations are producing and what society requires. 

In order to innovate science education and equip young people with the skills needed to address current and future societal challenges, FEDORA worked at identifying the limits of discipline-based knowledge organisation and proposing new ways to address them through interdisciplinarity. The guiding questions addressed were: 

  • How can we model inter-multi-transdisciplinarity and design “boundary spaces” in formal and informal educational contexts?
  • What institutional, epistemological, cultural, and emotional barriers can interdisciplinarity encounter?

Led by Kaunas University of Technology, four-part studies were conducted: 

Overview of the 4 Part studies.
Research findings from Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Lithuania, the United Kingdom.

N*= Total No. of entries,  n**= Selected No. of entries for analysis

Two words, and the metaphors attached to them, are crucial. The first one is the metaphor of the boundary (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011) that was used to model interdisciplinarity and its “paradoxical” nature: boundary both separates and connects. Analogously, interdisciplinarity blurs and redefines disciplinary identities and requires managing the equilibrium between “sense-making skills” – systems, critical and analytical thinking- and “strange-making skills” – creative, imaginative and anticipatory thinking. The second is the metaphor of the barrier that we used in interpreting the results and that connotes a separating obstacle; differently from the boundary, barriers do not have a characteristic of connectivity and cannot be easily crossed and demand systemic changes. 

Gathering inputs from a variety of voices, three “shared narratives” arose from preliminary findings:

A narrative about barriers and "boundary people"

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A narrative about crossing boundaries and facilitating interdisciplinarity

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A narrative about interdisciplinary attitudes and skills

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An idea that produced a  great resonance in the study group was realising that interdisciplinarity in STEM means more than managing tensions, it also considers managing balance. What are the tensions that we are talking about? Tensions between belonging and not belonging, defining or negotiating meanings, going in or out of a comfort zone, zooming in and zooming out -from details to big pictures and vice versa. 

By managing balance, we mean managing a particular kind of equilibrium between what we call “sense-making skills” -systems, critical, analytical thinking- and “strange-making skills” -creative, imaginative, anticipative thinking.


Informed by the papers of Akkerman and Bakker on boundary crossing and objects, and by the Family Resemblance Approach, developed by Sibel Erduran, Zoubeida R. Dagher and colleagues, we framed the space where we started our exploratory journey. 

The final outcomes of the studies revealed five main issues that appeared as boundaries or/and barriers in formal educational contexts: 1) Divergence between de jure and de facto in educational policies and practices, 2) Extensive demands from teachers, 3) Disciplinary isolation and lack of interdisciplinary languages, 4) Graduates unprepared for life 5) Social insensitivity.

Issue 1 stems from inconsistencies between national regulations and institutional practices, obstructing interdisciplinarity, institutional competitiveness and social impact. They are most perceived through the arrangements at the political level, such as governance mechanisms in educational institutions and national criteria for research evaluation and funding, as well as accreditation of quality assessment of study programmes.

These discrepancies account for at least three subsequent issues at the community or institutional level.

Issue 2 relates to excessive workload and demands from teachers and researchers.  Moving towards interdisciplinarity threatens teachers’ authority and self-confidence and demands extra time in connecting different disciplines. Disciplinary isolation through departments at research performing and research funding organisations, as encoded in issue 3, creates a  ‘silo’ effect. It constructs social, cultural, and institutional barriers as well as cognitive and epistemological boundaries to interdisciplinarity. A closed culture of disciplinary communities further strengthens individual and community identities through symbolic languages, representations and communication practices. Ultimately, this leads to issue 4: graduates unprepared for working life and beyond it. A disciplinary approach to knowledge organization is seen as erecting systematic barriers to developing transferable skills needed by the labour market and practical life, e.g. applying conceptual knowledge to practical problem-solving, self-confidence and efficacy, existential skills, teamworking, life-long learning skills, futures thinking skills etc. Current education is perceived as failing to develop these skills, and lack of cooperation between experts in STEM and social sciences is seen as a barrier to innovation development.

Finally, issue 5 brings focus on the interrelation between ongoing changes at the societal level and efforts to address them at a community level. Rote learning, standardized tests to monitor students’ progress, and academic achievement-driven culture are criticized for failing to respond to the growing diversity of society. Intersectionality of students’ race, ethnicity, gender, disability and other social categories decreases the chances of socially excluded or underrepresented groups to pursue education in science. 

FEDORA developed a framework for aligning science teaching/learning to the modus operandi of R&I. The following table summarizes the strategies that might be implemented to address each of the issues presented above, that means ways to cross boundaries between disciplines or deconstruct barriers to interdisciplinarity.

Those recommendation can be enacted at three levels: individual, community and political.

At the political level, re-engineering governance and changing institutional processes must take place: key performance indicators, funding formula, adding qualitative criteria of staffing, coordination, performance assessment, workload allocations have been previously identified as the prerequisites to ensure the sustainability of interdisciplinary courses. Remodelling criteria for evaluating research must also occur: the guiding point is not “ease of evaluation” but the importance of the research problem and impact on society that the research will produce, which is promoted by strategic programming documents at EU and national levels. 

At the community level, in particular in research institutions, human resource management practices have to be revisited: adding qualitative criteria to quantitative ones in the criteria of staffing, coordination, performance assessment, and workload allocations have been recommended by prior research.  Emphasis on collaboration at the institutional level may contribute to maintaining teacher teams with the mindset of co-ownership of interdisciplinary courses and securing a stable core teaching team with a mindset of co-ownership of interdisciplinary courses. Developing supporting materials may add to the effects of institutional changes. 

At the individual level, a coping strategy of a “disciplinary nomad”  and the development of a common interdisciplinary language, may facilitate overcoming cognitive and epistemological barriers and enacting interdisciplinarity.   

The recommendation above leads to the community-level approach again, indicating the need to establish a “third space”, be it a physical or a virtual one, that is free of disciplinary metalanguage and symbols to enable interdisciplinarity.

The following infographics summarizes FEDORA's interdisciplinarity in science education framework.

FEDORA, Future-oriented Science Education to enhance Responsibility and Engagement in the society of acceleration and uncertainty, is a 3-year EU-funded project. It started in September 2020 and will deploy its activities until August 2023. It gathers 6 partner institutions from 5 European countries.
FEDORA has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement no. 872841
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