Diversity and Democracy

Innovative Team Teaching for Systems Thinking and Global Citizenship

Interdisciplinary teaching is a natural approach to synthesizing the range of expertise necessary to address complex global issues. At Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, faculty have been working to reconceive the traditional team-taught interdisciplinary course using a model that produces the type of systems thinking required for responsible global citizenship. Taught annually, the resulting upper-division, three-credit-hour course counts toward the general education social sciences requirement and enrolls between fifteen and twenty-five students. Through the new course model, we are achieving global learning objectives while advancing our college’s Jesuit mission, which calls us to engage with real-world problems, both at home and abroad.

Spring Hill College’s new course model combines three key principles: radical interdisciplinarity, geographical integration, and problem-based learning. To advance radical interdisciplinarity, the course convenes nine professors from different disciplines around a pressing global topic such as petroleum, human migration, or water. To achieve geographical integration, the course follows a local to global arc, helping students develop an understanding of the course topic across different spatial scales. Finally, to encourage problem-based learning, the course prompts students to investigate solutions to pressing problems by engaging with the community. In this article, we share some of the theory and practice relating to these three key principles.

Radical Interdisciplinarity

Our approach to radical interdisciplinarity arises from our primary goal for students: developing systems thinking. We see systems thinking as a defining characteristic of global learners and global citizens. Understanding how local realities are defined by systems of which we are all a part—economic, political, environmental, or cultural—empowers students to become effective actors in a globalized world. As Donella Meadows (2009) has shown, systems thinking is inextricably tied to problem solving. In Meadows’s view, only by understanding how a system’s structures produce problems can one find the inflection points that enable real solutions. Systems thinking methodology is powerfully illustrated in Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power (2005), where Farmer uses case studies to reveal the structures that create individuals’ lived realities.

The benefits of radical interdisciplinarity for developing systems thinking are straightforward. By offering nine perspectives on a particular issue, our course model helps students understand the multiple structures that are implicated in any one global problem. Facilitating collaboration between nine professors is easier than one might think. Each spring, our course steering committee publishes a call to the entire faculty announcing the course topic for the coming year and inviting applications from those who wish to participate. From the resulting applicant pool, the steering committee selects nine professors whose offerings seem wide-ranging but complementary. The committee then groups these faculty members in teams of three, with each team designing one-third of the course: for example, in our petroleum course, professors worked in teams focused on Environmental Impact (biology, chemistry, and history), Global Systems (economics, political science, and communications), and Human Impact (psychology, English, and fine arts). Each professor teaches two to three class sessions during the semester in addition to attending four planning meetings and grading one assignment. While these activities are in addition to the regular course load, we offer a small stipend of $200, and faculty find the workload reasonable. They also appreciate the intangible payoff of working with colleagues across disciplines on an innovative pedagogical project.

Geographical Integration

The course’s second important innovation is geographical integration. Faculty have intentionally designed the course to move through layered spatial scales—the nested geographies of which we are all a part, from local to regional, national, and global. The arc of the course extends from the local to the global, interweaving assignments, field trips, and speakers to build knowledge about each layer. For example, in our human migration class, students began by exploring the personal level, interviewing family members to write their family’s migration autobiography. They subsequently interviewed local migrants from the Philippines, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Cambodia, Guatemala, and India about their migration experiences. In their final assignment, they conducted case studies of migration systems outside the United States (for example, global immigration networks or migration patterns for international refugees).

Moving from the personal to the local to the global is key to helping students understand the complexity of each course topic. Speakers and field trips can encourage students to navigate the connections between different spatial scales. For example, in our current course on water, we toured a local water treatment facility and heard from a local nonprofit organization working to protect the Mobile Bay watershed early in the semester; later on, an engineering professor who works with Engineers Without Borders will share his work on water issues in El Salvador, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. By emphasizing the need to traverse different spatial scales—to move between the local and the global—we hope not only to illustrate the complex systems involved in these issues, but also to help students locate themselves within various structures while suggesting different levels of possible intervention.

Problem-Based Learning

The course’s final important innovation is capitalizing on problem-based learning. After spending a semester exploring a specific issue and the systems that produce it, students want to do something to address the issue. Opportunities to develop solutions are critical to helping students transition from the role of learners to the role of global citizens: people who can use their knowledge responsibly to act in the world.

A serendipitous class exercise near the end of the petroleum course led us to become more intentional in our approach to problem-based learning. During one course session, a faculty member divided students into four groups and asked each group to develop a nonprofit organization that would offer a solution to one pressing problem emerging from the systems of petroleum extraction, exchange, and use. To compete for hypothetical grant funding, these groups needed to articulate what interventions they would make and why their projects should receive support. Students were energized by the exercise. They synthesized their knowledge from the course, set priorities, developed solutions, and advocated for their perspectives. In our current water course, we are formalizing this assignment as the course’s capstone. We have also designed a campus-wide education day to be held at the end of the course so that students can inform the campus community about water issues.

Practical Considerations

The component most essential to the course’s success is a group of creative and engaged colleagues—a resource that is available at no additional cost. Therefore, the course can be taught inexpensively, requiring just one adjunct salary to fund a course release so that someone can serve as course coordinator. This coordinator manages the course’s many moving parts and implements the teaching team’s decisions: drafting the syllabus and assignments, arranging field trips and speakers, keeping the grade book, and attending all class sessions. With a few thousand dollars more, the institution can offer modest stipends to the teaching team and honoraria to the speakers. In sum, the course model offers a lot of innovation for little expense.

We are grateful for the support this course has had from our Jesuit institution and from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, whose Shared Futures initiative offered both impetus and incubation for our innovations. However, we think that the course model has potential beyond our felicitous circumstances and hope that this article piques readers’ interest in beginning a comparable pedagogical approach. After all, we cannot produce systems thinkers without thinking innovatively about our own educational systems.

The authors wish to recognize the course steering committee (Lesli Bordas, Margaret Davis, Jamie Franco-Zamudio, Kristina Kotchemidova, Leigh Ann Litwiller Berte, Wanda Sullivan, and Tom Ward) and the fourteen other professors, representing thirteen academic departments, who have taught in the courses described here.


Farmer, Paul. 2005. Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Meadows, Donella H. 2009. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. London: Earthscan.

Leigh Ann Litwiller Berte is associate professor of English at Spring Hill College. Margaret Davis is professor of English at Spring Hill College.

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