Imagination and the interdisciplinary

Every day, we glimpse the future in the present.

In the IB Diploma, the world studies essay gives students opportunities to express their interdisciplinary understanding by conducting “an in-depth interdisciplinary investigation into an issue of contemporary global importance” (IBO, 2014, p. 10). The ways by which we approach interdisciplinary investigation in the MYP directly affect the ways by which students might approach interdisciplinary investigation in the Diploma. If Diploma students struggle with interdisciplinary investigations in the world studies essay, what are our hunches about what experiences we need to facilitate for these students in the MYP?

Like a full bucket requires each drop of water added in at a specific time and place, small actions can complete an intended result.

Gharajedaghi in his book Systems Thinking (2006) presents four ways that might sustain small actions toward an intended result: design, participation, iteration, and second order learning (in Garmston & Wellman, 2013). These ideas can apply to interdisciplinary experiences in the MYP, and here we look at the first two.

Design consists of choices made based on values and principles (Garmston & Wellman, 2013). In a classroom, this might be about how we arrange the physical environment, essential agreements for behavior, the flow of teaching and learning. If we have seats arranged in uniform rows, all facing one way, perhaps we convey the value of a sage in the front of the room, that learning is transmission, non-collaborative, an endeavor each learner must undertake alone and in passive ways. If we rearranged this classroom so that students can see each other’s faces while learning, what values might this communicate? If the classroom has flexible seating to suit learning engagements at a given time, what might the students learn from this element of design?

In traditional subject-driven models of schooling, rare are the opportunities to explore one discipline’s concepts in light of another’s. If part of our design in MYP is facilitating arrangements and opportunities for another subject’s concepts to blend in another subject’s learning, we convey the importance of interdisciplinary learning. By gathering two or more subjects under the same global context to explore authentic manifestations of concepts, we convey the interconnectedness in our world and the ways we might explore complexity through these connections.

Participation is a function of design; the ways we behave can arise from the ways our interactions and behavior are shaped by things and people (Garmston & Wellman, 2013). If we expect behaviors, such as fruitful collaboration for instance, yet we do not provide for the actors to learn the skills necessary to engage in the expected behaviors, what might result? In the MYP classroom, participation might include approximations of independent inquiry. This means students have to experience psychological safety to explore how independent investigations work for each of them. This means we have adopted a mindset that school is not about getting things right that have already been decided by the teacher or the exam, but that school is a series of opportunities to exercise craftsmanship and flexible thinking and many other dispositions of the Learner Profile. That ways to know and understand and do can be more than the teacher’s design based on his or her own experience, and that students can author approaches to learning as they learn, and share these with other learners.

Independent investigation requires the student to value ambiguity as an entry point to learning.

One might argue, But what do they know, these students? How might they approach independent investigation when they know not much?

Consider the poet who provokes thinking

Xu Lizhi is the poet who documented the lives of workers in China. His own life through his poetry captures the macro-concepts of fairness and development, globalization and sustainability. He illustrates the key concepts of change, perspective, adaptation, balance, aesthetics, among others.

His poetry resonates with the audience because they allow readers to imagine a life they might not otherwise know. But the poems also capture the lives of hopeful migrants to the Chinese manufacturing hubs, and allow humanity to emerge in the algorithm of a Chinese “American Dream” – hope, optimism, disappointment, anguish, pain, creativity and destruction. If I read about Xu Lizhi, if I read his poetry, it might provoke thinking about a global context, a key concept, and provide entry points to connections that link subjects.

Consider the algorithm of a blockbuster movie, and of love

The increasing use of algorithms as an entry point to knowing and understanding patterns has emerged. People now calculate what makes a movie successful, how people choose political parties, and even attempt to predict the calculus of love.

We also learn that algorithms have to be adaptive, to deal with human problems connected to change. Humanity is needed in problems that produce decisions – such as trust, meaning, and asking the right questions. In the end, the human is necessary to provide the decisions. The patterns are only what they are, information arranged in meaningful sequences of logic, used to predict. In the process, imagination is key to finding interpretations that might result in adaptive decisions. In other words, the numbers open portals to the calculus of what to do, but we have to imagine what it is that we might do.

W.E.B. DuBois “invented a way of being, a point of view, a style of work that quite naturally, dynamically and organically integrated science, art, history, and activism” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Hoffman Davis, 1997, p. 7). In Rampersod’s portrait of DuBois, he “declined to see a separation between Science and Art, believing that such a distinction violated the integrity of intelligence, which could set no wall between one fundamental form of knowledge and another, since all belonged to the world of nature, of Truth…” (Rampersod in Lawrence-Lightfoot and Hoffman Davis, 1997, p.7).

We ask our students to view the world like DuBois, to imagine and pursue explorations of a world wherein there are no preset maps, only endless avenues.

The future is in the present: independent inquiry and the imagination to voyage into the interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary learning is the explicit harnessing of the imagination, and the IDU is a formal invitation to form connections and explore these.

How will we teach our students to sail? How will we give them the courage and self-efficacy to journey independently?

The ways we make the future is by approximating it in the present.

And when the present resembles the future we intend, we are already transforming it.


International Baccalaureate Organization (2014). Fostering interdisciplinary teaching and learning in the MYP. Geneva: Author.

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2013.) The adaptive school; A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups (2nd ed.). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gharajedaghi, J. (2006). Systems thinking; Managing chaos and complexity (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S., & Hoffman Davis, J. (1997). The art and science of portraiture. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Rauhala, E. & Jieyang. The poet who dies for your phone. TIME magazine. Retrieved from on June 16, 2015.

Whipple, T. Slaves to the algorithm. The Economist Intelligent Life. Retrieved from on June 16, 2015.

Image used
“Boris Bernaskoni EM KA-01” By Bernaskoni Ltd. (Bernaskoni Ltd.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

7 thoughts

  1. I love your work Aloha, every post is thoughtful, inspiring and practical. I look forward to receiving each new post.

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