Liberal Education

Educating for a Complex World: Integrative Learning and Interdisciplinary Studies

Within higher education, it is commonplace to observe that the world has become complex, and that our students will live out their lives in a world that is even more so. At a 2009 conference sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in partnership with the Association for Integrative Studies—aptly titled “Integrative Learning: Addressing the Complexities”—the keynote speaker, Veronica Boix Mansilla, and a plenary speaker, Bruce Hutton, both identified globalization as a key driver of this increasing complexity. They argued for a redesign of higher education to prepare students to cope with the myriad complex situations they will face in a “globalized” world. Several years earlier, the Greater Expectations National Panel asserted that “the key to successful reform is a clear focus on the kinds of learning that students need for a complex world” (AAC&U 2002, x). I believe that a mixture of integrative learning and interdisciplinary studies, appropriately conceived and well grounded in academic disciplines, constitutes the most effective education for a complex world. But how exactly should interdisciplinary studies and integrative learning be conceived?

When I started teaching interdisciplinary courses in the late 1960s, inter­disciplinary studies was a variously defined umbrella term for any curricular approach that was not narrowly disciplinary. Forty years later, the interdisciplinary studies profession had moved toward a more focused definition of interdisciplinary process, one ideally suited for understanding complex situations. Julie Thompson Klein and I set out the first version of that definition in the Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum: “interdisciplinary studies may be defined as a process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline or profession . . . [It] draws on disciplinary perspectives and integrates their insights through construction of a more comprehensive perspective” (1997, 393–4).

Similarly, integrative learning started out with an eclectic and varied definition. The broadest conception is contained in Lee Shulman’s observation that “there’s a sense in which all learning is integrative” (Huber, Hutchings, and Gale 2005, 7). Mary Huber and Pat Hutchings refer to fostering “students’ abilities to integrate their learning across contexts and over time” (2004, 1), to which “A Statement on Integrative Learning,” developed jointly by AAC&U and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, adds “and between campus and community life” (Huber and Hutchings 2004, 13). Julie Thompson Klein defines integrative learning as “an umbrella term for structures, strategies, and activities that bridge numerous divides, such as high school and college, general education and the major, introductory and advanced levels, experiences inside and outside the classroom, theory and practice, and disciplines and fields” (2005, 8).

I propose a more focused way of thinking about integrative learning, one closer to the general cognitive approach underpinning the rubric for integrative learning developed by AAC&U’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education project, which defines integrative learning as “an understanding and a disposition that a student builds across the curriculum and cocurriculum, from making simple connections among ideas and experiences to synthesizing and transferring learning to new, complex situations within and beyond the campus” (Rhodes 2010, 51). To prepare students to meet the challenges of a complex world, I believe we need to think of integrative learning as analogous to interdisciplinary studies. That is, we need to define integrative learning as outside-the-classroom activity (off as well as on campus) that provides students with certain types of experiences that facilitate the integrative process, experiences through which they are confronted with new perspectives and are challenged to integrate insights from divergent perspectives.

To appreciate the complementarity of integrative learning and interdisciplinary studies, so conceived, visualize several disciplinary groups each examining a complex situation from the vantage point of its own ivory tower (or silo). Because disciplines stand outside the complex situation and view it from different angles, they naturally see different aspects and arrive at different understandings of it. Meanwhile, inter­disciplinarians visit each of the ivory towers to learn from the disciplines, and then step back to see the complex situation as a whole. Their goal is to integrate the insights of the disciplines into a more comprehensive understanding of the complex situation, one that best fits all available empirical evidence. This way of thinking about interdisciplinary studies has come to be widely, though by no means unanimously, accepted in the United States over the past decade. Yet few educators seem to have given much thought to the ways in which interdisciplinary studies and integrative learning can fruitfully be understood as complementary.

Integrative learning experiences bring students into contact with people who are inside the complex situation. Since these people are situated in different social locations, they look at the complex situation in which they find themselves from different angles, experience it differently, and come to different understandings of it. Study abroad experiences and multi­cultural education introduce students to people from foreign countries or cultures. Service learning, community service, practicums, and field work expose students to people from communities closer to home geographically, but who may be distant from them economically, socially, or racially. Learning communities, living-learning programs, and collaborative learning engage students with other students who may be of different races, classes, genders, sexual orientations, political persuasions, religious beliefs, and so forth. Talking to one or two people from another culture, community, or racial group may yield mostly idiosyncratic insights—after all, there is a lot of variation within cultures, communities, and groups—but if students get a chance to talk to enough individuals, the distinctive perspective of that culture, community, or group should start to become apparent. That’s why we set up whole programs like study abroad or service learning—so students get an entire semester of interactions with people with different perspectives.

Integrative learning is not just about making connections, however; in themselves, connections do not empower students. The challenge of integrative learning is to make sense of the contrasting or conflicting insights by integrating them into a more comprehensive understanding of the situation in its full complexity. In the course of their integrative learning activity, students may encounter many such complex situations. Any courses linked to those experiences offer students perspectives (disciplinary or interdisciplinary) from outside the complex situation. They confront students with the additional challenge of integrating disciplinary insights from outside as well as experiential insights from inside the complex situation.

An interdisciplinary and integrative approach

What complex situations require in order to be understood as fully as possible is an approach that is interdisciplinary and integrative. Grounded in the disciplines and in out-of-class experiences, such an approach exposes students to diverse perspectives and encourages them to integrate their insights. Integrative learning provides students with additional information about a complex situation beyond what the disciplines or even interdisciplinary studies can offer. Setting up these approaches to maximize their effectiveness requires a rethinking of curriculum and pedagogy by faculty and administrators, as well as a rethinking of the cocurriculum and services by student affairs professionals.

Educators constructing integrative learning experiences face many challenges that are similar to those that confront faculty designing interdisciplinary courses. The educational experience needs to be designed so that it helps prepare students to address new complex problems after they graduate. Activities need to be organized that maximize the chances students will encounter other perspectives on relevant complex situations instead of leaving those encounters to serendipity. Students need to be encouraged to probe the assumptions and values underlying those perspectives. And students need occasions, and the means, to ponder how the insights from the diverse perspectives they encounter might appropriately be integrated into a more complete understanding of those complex situations.

If an educational institution offers several types of integrative learning experiences, each should be set up according to the same precepts in order to produce a synergistic effect. That is, they should reinforce the same set of skills, sensibilities, and habits of mind as are promoted by interdisciplinary studies. These include valuing diversity, “both/and” thinking, rejection of simplistic solutions, critical thinking, looking behind stated positions for underlying values and assumptions, and facility with techniques for creating common ground and best practices for constructing a more comprehensive understanding. The institution should provide opportunities for students who are engaged in an integrative learning experience (or who are veterans of such an experience) to interact with students who are or were engaged in other integrative learning activities. The idea is to ensure that as many aspects of the collegiate experience as possible promote a common set of learning outcomes—outcomes pertinent to a complex world. When that is achieved—as it has been at some experimental colleges (Newell 2001)—the impacts of integrative learning tend to be multiplicative, rather than additive, since interaction effects abound. The result can be a transformative educational experience.

The disciplines, which collectively follow a reductionist divide-and-conquer strategy using simplifying assumptions and “either/or” dualistic thinking, were not designed to address such complex situations, though the partial insights they provide are absolutely essential to understanding individual aspects of a complex situation. Each academic discipline studies a subset of the elements of a complex situation and the connections among them, producing valuable but partial insights into the complex situation as a whole. The tasks of identifying connections among subsets, creating common ground, and integrating disciplinary insights into an understanding of the complex situation as a whole, however, are left to interdisciplinary studies.

An interdisciplinary and integrative process

Thanks to growing consensus on a definition of interdisciplinary studies and agreement by almost all interdisciplinarians that interdisciplinary study is characterized by a process that includes integration, several variants of a theory of interdisciplinary studies have recently emerged that spell out the generic process of interdisciplinarity. The version of the theory proposed by Allen Repko (2008) has received the most attention. He identifies a ten-part interdisciplinary process that culminates in a deconstruction of interdisciplinary integration: identify conflicts between insights; create common ground; integrate insights; and produce and test an interdisciplinary understanding of the problem. Thanks to this new focus on the details of interdisciplinary process, inter­disciplinarians have now identified some useful techniques and best practices that demystify the process of interdisciplinary integration. I believe they can be readily adapted for use in integrative learning as well.

Interdisciplinarians are aware of at least four techniques for creating common ground: redefinition, extension, organi­zation, and transformation. (Repko [2008] discusses them in detail and provides examples of their use in different fields, so I provide only a cursory review of them here.)

  1. Redefinition. Disciplines are notorious for jargon, but even when they use the same term, it has a different penumbra of meaning because of the different intellectual contexts. We need to identify the kernel of meaning that two concepts have in common and their precise areas of overlap.
  2. Extension. Common ground can be created by extending a concept from one discipline into the domain of another discipline. In recent years, for example, the concept of sustainability has been extended from the environment to include economic activity and indigenous cultures, creating common ground among advocates for the environment, economic development, and indigenous peoples.
  3. Organization. Factors that are the focus of one discipline can be seen not as competing with the factors studied by another discipline to explain a situation, but as constraining, complementing, or reinforcing them. Or, they can be placed along a continuum, as when Boulding (1981) saw that benevolent behavior studied by sociologists and malevolent behavior studied by political scientists can be placed along a continuum of other-regarding behavior (positive and negative), with the self-regarding behavior studied by economists at the midpoint.
  4. Transformation. Instead of treating diametrically opposed views as axiomatic assumptions (e.g., human behavior results from the exercise of free will versus it is determined internally by genes or externally by environment), treat them as endogenous continuous variables (e.g., ask how much freedom people have in a particular situation).

Interdisciplinarians have also identified a series of best practices related to the construction of a more comprehensive understanding:

  • Assume every perspective that has stood the test of time has a kernel of truth to it.
  • Find what is useful in each of the perspectives you dislike and what is problematic about each one you like.
  • Create commonalties instead of making compromises.
  • Find overlooked connections between ideas from different perspectives.
  • Embrace contradiction, asking in what sense a situation can be "both."
  • Engage in shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth between theories, and between theory and empirical evidence.
  • Seek an understanding that is responsive to each of the contributing perspectives but not dominated by any one of them.


The vision of integrative learning set out here has obvious implications for designing and implementing integrative learning experiences. For example, following up on the argument of Huber, Hutchings, and Gale (2005) that integration must be intentional, students need to be taught how to integrate. But their argument also offers a rationale for integrative learning that allows us to respond to critics who perceive such activities as nonacademic fluff and thus expendable. Similarly, a conception of interdisciplinary studies leading to courses that demonstrably prepare students for complex decision making is the best defense against critics who charge that interdisciplinary courses are not central to the mission of the institution. It also provides a response to those who ask why we should insist on a particular conception of interdisciplinarity when everyone is doing interdisciplinary studies these days. Such integrative and interdisciplinary activities have the additional benefit of motivating students by demonstrating the real-world relevance of their education.

I have long felt that the best undergraduate education asks students to go back and forth between disciplinary and interdisciplinary courses, since interdisciplinary courses need the disciplines for depth and disciplinary courses need interdisciplinarity for real-world applicability (Newell 1983). It is only recently, however, that I have come to realize that students also need to shuttle back and forth between the classroom and the outside world. This is not for financial reasons, as with the old co-op programs, but because integrative learning subjects theory to the reality check of human experience, while dispassionate theory is the best antidote for emotional and parochial bias. But interdisciplinary studies and integrative learning can achieve their full potential only if they are conceived in a way that values diversity of perspective, demands integration of insights, and embraces holistic as well as reductionist thinking. Only then are students prepared to meet the challenge of coping with complexity.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2002. Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Boulding, Kenneth E. 1981. A Preface to Grants Economics: The Economy of Love and Fear. New York: Praeger.

Huber, Mary Taylor, Pat Hutchings, and Richard Gale. 2005. “Integrative Learning for Liberal Education.” Peer Review 7 (4): 4–7.

Huber, Mary Taylor, and Pat Hutchings. 2004. Integrative Learning: Mapping the Terrain. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Klein, J. T. 2005. “Integrative Learning and Interdisciplinary Studies.” Peer Review 7 (4): 8–10.

Klein, Julie Thompson, and William H. Newell. 1997. “Advancing Interdisciplinary Studies.” In Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Comprehensive Guide to Purposes, Structures, Practices, and Change, edited by Jerry G. Gaff, James L. Ratcliff, and Associates, 393–415. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Newell, William H. 1983. “The Role of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Liberal Education of the 1980s.” Liberal Education 69 (3): 245–55.

———. 2001. “Powerful Pedagogies.” In Reinventing Ourselves: Interdisciplinary Education, Collaborative Learning and Experimentation in Higher Education, edited by Barbara Leigh Smith, John McCann, and Alexander W. Astin, 196–211. Bolton, MA: Anker Press.

Repko, Allen F. 2008. Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Rhodes, Terrel L., ed. 2010. Assessing Outcomes and Improving Achievement: Tips and Tools for Using Rubrics. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

William H. Newell is professor of interdisciplinary studies at Miami University and executive director of the Association for Integrative Studies.

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