Interdisciplinary Learning: Creative Thinking for a Complex World

The major challenges and threats that confront societies in our rapidly changing 21st-Century world, from climate change to pandemics; from financial systems to public services; are all complex in nature. Solutions are needed that are not confined to one discipline but require interdisciplinary thinking and working. Jobs in the 21st Century are becoming project-driven rather than discipline-driven, requiring the collaborative engagement of generalists and specialists.

A systemic response is required. This is why the RSE, under the auspices of its Education Committee, chose to organise its first education conference on 30 January 2019 on the subject of interdisciplinary learning (IDL), bringing together policymakers and influencers, teachers, lecturers, learners and employers. The conference combined insights from leading international figures and practical wisdom and experience from nearer home.

The conference outputs and outcomes, set out below, report on the conference proceedings and provide a range of practical exemplifications and deeper understandings of IDL and its impacts. They also capture practitioners’ and learners’ views on and, experiences of, IDL. These outputs and outcomes will be of interest to practitioners working across the education sectors and to policymakers and influencers. The outcomes also provide guidelines and a starting point for the next steps in IDL implementation in Scottish education, including an advice paper on IDL being developed by the Education Committee, to take forward the learning and reflections from the conference.

The conference was followed by a lecture by one of the conference speakers, Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development, University of Oxford, Our Age of Discovery: Navigating the Storms of Our Second Renaissance.


Our Age of Discovery: Navigating the Storms of Our Second Renaissance

The Renaissance was a period of unprecedented change that brought the rapid spread of new ideas and technologies, challenging the established order. Professor Goldin believes there are strong parallels with the transformations taking place today. One of the most important lessons we can learn from the new Renaissance is that it brings immense dangers as well as far-reaching benefits and sets the stage for a battle of ideas in which there is no guarantee that progressive thinking will prevail. The talk was introduced by RSE Chief Executive Dr Rebekah Widdowfield, who also welcomed Professor Lesley McAra, Director of the Edinburgh Futures Institute, who spoke about how Higher Education and the Institute can help us respond to the challenges.

Lecture report


Interdisciplinary Learning (IDL) is at the heart of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) – identified as one of its four contexts for learning. It is about connecting, collaborating and innovating and should be playing a critical role in joining up thinking and learning across the curriculum and connecting students to the wider world. Yet in his conference introduction, Chair of the organising Committee Professor Colin Graham FRSE, said it has been relatively poorly articulated, poorly exemplified and often poorly understood by teachers, and that there has been little research into its implementation and impact in Scottish education. Recent reports indicate a similar situation in higher education. Most students may go through their educational careers without experiencing IDL. A systemic response is needed. Professor Graham suggested that pillars, lintels and foundations provide a helpful metaphor for IDL in which the pillars are the disciplines and the lintels the interdisciplinary connections; without the pillars and lintels will fall. He concluded that a key purpose of the conference was to gather information and explore the nature, relevance and development of IDL in 21st-century education, and to develop a strategy for its wider implementation.

Morning Session 1: Educating for the Future

Chaired by Dr Heather Reid OBE, Meteorologist and Education Consultant

Morning Session 2: Pillars, Lintels and Foundations: IDL Across Education Systems and Curricula

Chaired by Walter Humes, Honorary Professor of Education, University of Stirling


Participants had a choice of four workshops that had been previously selected at the time of booking.

Afternoon Session 1: IDL Development in Practice – Challenges and Goals

Chaired by Ken Muir, CEO and Registrar, The General Teaching Council for Scotland


Participants had a choice of four further workshops, again, previously selected at the time of booking.

Afternoon Session 2: IDL in the Context of School Improvement

Chaired by Keir Bloomer FRSE, RSE Education Committee Convener and Education Consultant


Wednesday January 30th, 2019 09:00-18:00


The Royal Society of Edinburgh