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Thursday, March 14, 2013
A Closer Look at Anti-Disciplinary Studies
Master Educator Rabbi Aaron Ross responded to our last post about the values of the MIT Media Lab with the following comment:
"Chapter 2 [of The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices] describes the anti-disciplinary nature of the work that takes place in the lab, where people from many different disciplines can cross-pollinate with each other and arrive at innovative solutions to problems that have been addressed in more narrow ways."
There seems to be an inherent contradiction in this line. On the one hand, the current work being done is "anti-disciplinary", or at least interdisciplinary. But on the other hand, it is being done by people "from many different disciplines", which implies that specific disciplinary knowledge is a sine qua non for being able to work at this level.
The question then becomes, at what stage of learning is one ready to cross disciplines? I know that we often bemoan the fact that the departmentalization of schools sometimes causes kids to departmentalize the world and therefore one of our goals as educators should be to teach students how to bridge the disciplines. But on the other hand, expertise is often acquired via a laser-like focus on that discipline. MIT Media Lab is dealing with people who have already become experts in their fields - is high school or middle school too early to do the same?
Rabbi Ross raises important points about the implementation of anti-disciplinary, or interdisciplinary, studies. It's absolutely true that we need experts in a multitude of fields or else how will those fields grow? The MIT Media Lab is successful because it cultivates the creativity and ingenuity of some of the country's brightest and most talented people, and those people are experts trained in fields such as neuroscience, computer science, design, physics, music, and more.
However, part of the Media Lab's success is that it also gives those very talented people a chance to "play" in fields they aren't expert in. Example: In Chapter 2 of The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices, which is entitled "Disappearing Disciplines," Moss describes the work of Amy Farber and Ian Eslick. Farber has a PhD in social anthropology, and Eslick is working on his fourth degree from MIT (we're jealous!) and has done extensive work in the field of Artificial Intelligence. Neither Farber or Eslick has a degree in biology, but they're working on a cure for lymph-angioleio-myamatosis (LAM). Farber suffers from this debilitating disease, but the medical field isn't rushing to find a cure for it because it's not a popular one and therefore market demand for a drug isn't high enough (Moss 40-49).
Moss describes the anti-disciplinary nature of the work Farber and Eslick do: "As they discuss databases, casually tossing around terms like de-duplication and hashing, it's difficult to tell which one is the computer scientist. When the conversation turns to cell biology, it's even more difficult to tell -- and to believe -- that neither has any background in medicine" (40).
Farber and Eslick have now created The LAM Treatment Alliance, and one of the successes of the organization is that it's crowdsourcing a treatment plan -- and possibly a cure -- for the disease by adhering to an old doctrine of the doctor: Ask the patient what is wrong. Medicine today doesn't mine a treasure trove of information it has in front of it: patients. But for Farber, linking all those who suffer from LAM and offering them a way to share their best practices in treating the disease is a way to find not only the most effective treatment plans, but also perhaps a cure. (For more on this "post-modern" view of handing the patient the key to his own physical health, read this review of _Patient: Heal Thyself_.)
We know what you're going to say: Farber and Eslick are part of a group of some of the brightest people in America and are in some of the most innovative and best financed conditions in the world. But as educators, don't we have to ask ourselves if that kind of lab environment is something we can duplicate for all students, given the fact that the possibilities of discovery, invention and innovation rise exponentially when people are put in something like the Media Lab?
Now, we don't feel a person's interest in a subject has to be as serious as Farber's unfortunately is, but we recognize that all people want to engage in learning that is meaningful to them. One of RealSchool's values is that we begin first with a student's particular interest, something that the student may not have time to study in a traditional classroom, and even if the motivation to pursue a subject isn't as grave as Ferber's, we believe that life has more meaning and purpose when we're pursuing those interests that give us most joy and satisfaction. And, as is so often the case, our passions may lead us to something as important as a cure for an illness or some other significant achievement.
Implementing Anti-Disciplinary Studies and Self-Directed Learning
How can we implement anti-disciplinary, self-directed learning in the classroom? That's the big question, and
it can be answered differently depending on the class in which it's asked. For example, next year at Frisch we hope to run RealSchool as an elective. In the RS elective, we can transfer the model we're using now, when we're an extra-curricular activity, to the classroom and plan events and projects based on student interest. However, we also plan to "RealSchool" the twelfth grade History and English classes, integrating them and using a lot of PBL (project-based learning). We're at the beginning stages of designing the interdisciplinary course now, but one approach might be to ask students whether they want to learn History through English or English through History. We could also ask students if they want to learn:
LitHum (Literature/Humanities) and the Arts
LitHum and Politics
LitHum and Psychology
LitHum and Social Action
By creating a class that suits different student interests, we evolve courses where students feel more invested in the material and are hopefully more engaged in the learning. Schools have already done this to a certain extent by offering, say, English electives such as The Sixties, Shakespeare, Mythology, etc. Our approach expands on that idea.
What about Elementary Schools?
RealSchool right now is in a high school setting, but we feel that the model can be tailored to an elementary one as well, where, no question, control over the direction of a course must be tighter. But since we feel that each child is unique and has something special to contribute to the world, don't we want to find out what that something special is and enable that child to get started as soon as possible on a path of learning that is exciting and fulfilling to him and that has the potential to add real value or charm or amazement to the world?
Michelangelo's father used to beat him because he neglected his lessons and drew all the time (Michelangelo's Biography). 'Nuff said.
Here's a video that adorably illustrates what even kindergartners can do with PBL and self-directed learning:
Be sure to check out the edutopia.org website. It's a great resource for PBL and other amazingly innovative learning strategies and tools.
Last night on #jedchat, we commented that when we asked a senior in one class what he'd like to learn, he responded by saying, "No one's ever asked me that before." That is so sad. Let's change that, and let's be careful but creative when doing so.
Moss, Frank. The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices. New York: Crown Business, 2011.