The (Inter) Disciplinary Mind

By February 20, 2014Exploring Education

By Peter Kraft, Associate Head of School for Academic Affairs

During one of my recent Advanced Placement United States history classes, we considered the intersection of urban Progressivism and realist art. As they do in almost every lesson, students examined a variety of documents: census data from 1890 and 1900; photographs from Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives; excerpts from Lincoln Steffens’ The Shame of the Cities; and a New York streetscape from the Ashcan school of Artists.

At the end of the lesson, one student lingered at the door. Then, almost as an aside, she said, “I always like it when we are asked to think across a number of different areas. That’s what makes classes so interesting to me – I like it when they are… interdisciplinary.”

One of the “Six Principles” of a Park Tudor education is

“a commitment to collaboration, student initiative, and critical thinking.” At the same time, we also deeply value our “time-honored focus on listening, writing, discourse and foundational skills.”

Importantly, both of these principles go hand-in-hand, helping to create what renowned educational psychologist Howard Gardner calls the “Disciplined mind.” For Gardner, the disciplined mind is one in which a student does three things:

  • Works steadily at something with significant focus;
  • Harnesses that work to become deeply knowledgeable in an area;
  • Ultimately, learns the major ways of thinking – or methods – of key disciplines.

Gardner goes on to argue there are four major “disciplines” of thought:

  • SCIENTIFIC: understanding the difference between correlation and causation; evidence vs. faith, etc.
  • HISTORICAL: understanding the role of human agency; avoiding presentism; seeing the “other side”
  • MATHEMATICAL: working beyond formulae to grasp larger patterns of systematic thinking;
  • ARTISTIC: understanding the connection between literal and figurative; thinking spatially and spiritually.

In other words, Gardner advocates a broad-based, liberal arts education (or, as I would call it, “a classical mindset”) grounded in both content and skills.

What is exciting about Gardner’s work is that it illustrates the importance of marrying a strong intellectual foundation with the ability to think creatively and across disciplines. As Gardner explains, one must understand a discipline well enough to discern what is important and what is not; then, once a student has that key understanding, she can become truly creative and approach issues in novel and multi-faceted ways.

As part of our evolving Strategic Plan, we are exploring the ways in which we can continue to strengthen our foundational experiences – reading, writing, discourse, analysis, and listening – and promoting a strong understanding of the core elements of each discipline. At the same time, we are examining ways in which interdisciplinary thinking at all levels of the curriculum can enhance students’ understanding of the world and reinforce the “disciplined” mindset that we seek to instill in our students.

In future articles, we will highlight the various ways in which interdisciplinary work is beginning to infuse our curriculum and inform our programmatic thinking in the Humanities, Arts, and STEM-related areas… all the while adhering to the classical modes of thinking that have always characterized a PT education.