Where breadth becomes depth

OK, who is this?

At the centre of his lifelong search was his dream of uncovering a small number of underlying principles and patterns that would explain all of nature. His notebooks are crammed with pictures and speculations about the nature of vortexes, heart valves, cloud shapes; the designs of leaves, human veins, bones and levers; about how character is expressed in the shape of faces. Everywhere, he is looking for correspondences. Are flowing human locks like rivulets of water? Are human arms like birds’ wings? Are there perfect proportions for the human body, and do they relate to the proportions of horses’ legs and muscles? What are the symmetries in plant forms, and what are the rules that guide them? In [his] world there is not yet a clear divide between ‘science’ and ‘art’. They are the same thing. The artist coldly analyses form, perspective and the effect of distance on colours, which will give his pictures their impact. The artist uses lenses, learns how to cast metals, and works on his equations so he knows how to support the dome of a new church.

You got it – it’s that hero of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, as described by Andrew Marr in his A History of the World.

And who might this be?

If I had a dollar every time a student says, “This is biology / chemistry class, why are we learning about chemistry / math / physics?” – well, I actually didn’t keep track of the numbers!

Yes, it’s an IB science teacher – one who understands the role of interdisciplinarity, but finds no such instinct among her students

Every discipline, science, humanity, and art, eventually converges to the same truth, if you believe in the singularity of truth. The problem is our human limitation. For example, even within the field of physics, the laws that apply to very big things (cosmic level) do not work with very small things (atomic level). It is our human limitation that prevents this. The more we know, the more common groundwork we will find across disciplines. 

These were just scribbles on a Padlet wall, discussing this year’s TOK questions, and Dr Hoa Nguyen, who teaches science at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City, has plenty more to say on the subject if asked. She talks about science as being intrinsically interdisciplinary. Take biology, for instance, the study of living things – and yet biologists spend a great dealt of time studying viruses, which are not by definition alive. Dr Nguyen cites new disciplines which have emerged during the past couple of generations, and the certainty that more will emerge in the future. New disciplines don’t come out of nowhere, of course, they are recombinations of existing categories. Think of biochemistry, cybernetics, biomedical engineering, neuroscience.

Some might find interdisciplinary ideals to be beyond our reach in High School, since the ‘singularity of truth’ currently defeats even the likes of Stephen Hawking. Most parents and many teachers would probably be content to leave interdisciplinary studies to be encountered at University level, if ever. Teachers working under pressure to deliver loaded Diploma syllabuses answer first to their primary constituency, the students to whom they are teaching Biology, Mathematics or Literature. It’s not easy find time for a TOK moment. We may pay lip-service to interdisciplinarity, but in practice coverage rules as we approach the exams. As a result, Diploma students tend to be specialists; to find a Leonardo in our schools, we may have to go back in time and look in Elementary.

So we need a strong answer to the question, ‘Why interdisciplinarity?’ How do we earth these high-flown notions in achievable educational forms?

The IB is a system predicated on breadth and depth, with its insistence on six subjects at Diploma level, in contrast to, say, the British system’s three subjects at Advanced Level. The danger in the Diploma program is always that students are kept so busy and stressed they do not have any time or energy for the kind of deep thinking and reflection without which the learner profile becomes meaningless.

In a pressured environment, we have to think creatively about building the space to think. This can start in TOK classes, but must go beyond, otherwise interdisciplinarity itself gets boxed in. The TOK department must somehow get out of its ghetto and carry the core into the classroom. TOK is the vector for interdisciplinarity in the Diploma, and here is the down-to-earth justification for it – without it, what on earth is the point of all that breadth? There is plenty of emerging research that demonstrates that deeper understandings can be achieved through interdisciplinary synthesis. Without it, our system doesn’t make sense. But when the connections, contrasts and contradictions start to multiply, suddenly this happens: breadth becomes depth.

leonardo notebooks


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

2 thoughts on “Where breadth becomes depth”

  1. Reblogged this on Time Space Education and commented:
    This is a fascinating posting by Paul Dunbar. Although focused on secondary education, and TOK in particular, it is very relevant to the world of primary education as we seek ways to blend learning with more sophistication.

  2. In our unit on ” How the world works” our focus area is energy. We connect it to biology (energy in our body, how the plants get energy) we look at physics, chemistry and the environment which makes it a rich unit. I am wondering what other connections can we think of?

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