Jan Visser is President and Senior Researcher at the Learning Development Institute. He is also UNESCO's former Director for Learning Without Frontiers. A theoretical physicist by origin, he strayed into many other areas, including filmmaking and instructional design, while broadening his interests and activities beyond the study of nature. Visser is also a musician (who builds his own instruments) and an avid walker.
The following is a draft of an article appearing in final form in Bulletin Interactif du Centre International de Recherches et Études Transdisciplinaires. It is provided here, with permission of the author, for its relevance to Science as Story Telling and Story Revision: A Conversation. Comments are welcome in the on-line forum for that conversation.
Structured and planned intervention into helping other people grow presents fascinating challenges to those who find themselves in the role of facilitator or coach of learning human beings. Sensible people, who end up in that position, will immediately recognize that helping someone learn implies dealing with another human being, the whole person, body and soul, rather than with some specific functional part of that person, such as the brain, or a particular subject area, a discipline like physics, mathematics, or history. Surprisingly, that rather obvious notion does not transpire from the average school curriculum. Only in rare cases does one find schools whose day-to-day practice is based on the recognition that real people live in them.
While working in imperfect circumstances, I was fortunate enough that, on several occasions, I had the opportunity to divert from teaching to the set curriculum without putting the fate of my students at risk. Whenever such circumstances occurred, I always eagerly pursued the opportunity. The cases in which this happened invariably had in common that either there was no predetermined evaluation procedure in place to test what the students were supposed to be learning or I was allowed - or felt I could take the liberty - to invent such procedures myself, doing so, when appropriate, in concert with my students. Occasionally, also, I felt I simply had to dissent and do things my way, whatever the expectations or imposed obligations of the educational environment I was working in. It took me until now to recognize that those accidental opportunities and the deliberate dissent I occasionally engaged in back then had something to do with what I now often refer to as transdisciplinarity, with the desire to escape from the self-imposed boundaries of given disciplines. In the pages that follow I describe two of my experiences and what I learned from them.
Teaching of Physics or Reflecting on Physics?
The year was 1964 and this was one of my earliest experiences in the above context. It occurred when I was asked to teach physics to students of the above mentioned Gymnasium in Delft who had chosen for their final two years of study to focus on the humanities, rather than the sciences. They were in their pre-examination year. To satisfy the requirements for their particular stream of studies, they would not have to sit an examination in any of the so-called exact sciences in order to graduate. Instead, their grade in these subjects would be attributed by the school on the basis of class work performed, rather than be the result of their performance on an exam, which I would have no control over.
The logic behind the inclusion of subjects like physics in a curriculum principally designed for the humanities was the prevailing notion in the Dutch school system of that time that, while students of that age (they were at least 17 or 18 years old) should begin to specialize, everyone should also have a general culture covering the wide variety of subjects taught. A laudable objective, no doubt, but in practice it usually meant that the teacher would administer a watered down version of, in this specific case, an ordinary physics course and dramatically lower the standard for the assessment of the students' achievements. Students would find this acceptable. Even though most of them would learn nothing useful, time spent in class would hardly be demanding and thus no protest would be raised.
The idea that 'general culture' can be equated with 'being taught in all available disciplines' is flawed if teaching means no more than inculcating in students the factual knowledge that pertains to those disciplines and no attempt is made to integrate the separate pieces into broader overarching frameworks of reflection. Thus, I faced the challenge of having been asked to teach something that none of my students really wanted and for which I, the teacher, could not see any justification. On the other hand, I knew that my major obligation merely was to come up, at the end of the year, with a list of grades that would somehow reflect my students' capacity to interact, from a general cultural perspective, with the world of physics. That consciousness prompted a process of inquiry and self-inspection beyond the physics I had learned.
Why did physics exist? What drove - and still drives - people to engage in it? What good had it meant to humankind? What bad had it meant? When did it start? Why? What was the deeper meaning of what people did when they engaged in doing physics? What had that to do with all kinds of other things that, supposedly, physicists also engage in, like entertaining beliefs, playing politics, writing poetry, or making love? At least, I, a physicist, did all those kinds of things, so it seemed justified to also ask these questions about my colleagues. Does physics exist without the physicists? What if physics, as a field of inquiry, ceases to exist because we have finally reached a stage in building our knowledge where it appears that we see the whole picture? What is special, if anything, about doing physics and what not? Is it really different from making music (which is something I did myself besides doing physics)?
Surely, there was no shortage of questions I could ask myself. There was no shortage either of the questions my students raised as soon as we started our explorations into the early beginnings of science. Rather than focusing on studying the physics as it appears in the school textbooks, of which they already had a fair level of knowledge thanks to a full two years of studying the subject at the basic level, we read what historians of science had to say; what the ancient Greeks as well as later philosophers had said; what transpired from scientific development in other cultures, such as the Islamic one; what physicists and their colleagues from other sciences had written about the epistemological underpinnings of their trade. To place current knowledge in perspective, we studied the worldviews that had preceded ours and reflected on why such visions made perfect sense in their time and how hard it must have been to overcome them. It gave us - it certainly gave me - a sense of the fragility of our current knowledge, the thrill of its beauty from the perspective of someone who knows it is only transient.
The subject I taught that year appeared on the academic record of my students still as 'physics.' Perhaps there is no problem with that. In the end, it was physics what we did, but we did it in a way that made sense for those who engaged in it, including me. Even while teaching physics to hardboiled physics students in other contexts, I have never ever after that occasion been able to teach any portion of my discipline - and any other thing I know - without first stepping outside of it and looking at it from above, before I stepped back in to teach it.
Looking back at what happened to my students and me by accident and poor planning, I think that the development of transdisciplinarity in education is conditioned by the degree to which we are willing to deliberately break away from the givens of our disciplines and allow students and teachers to collaboratively reflect on them while the students acquire the discipline and the teachers, hopefully, perfect their mastery of it. I use the term 'mastery' here in the sense of being the master of the discipline, rather than allowing the discipline to take control over how humanity develops. Clearly, this has deep implications for how we help teachers to become teachers.
A Matter of Method and Substance
This brings me to recalling another interesting experience in which I taught what I was supposed to teach, namely how best to teach physics, but did it in a way that was certainly not expected of me. The place this time is Mozambique, a country on the South East coast of the African continent, opposite Madagascar. The year is approximately 1980. Actually, I did this for a couple of years, so, it is more precise to say that this was during the early nineteen eighties.
Mozambique had become an independent nation in 1975. At that time it had no more than, literally, a handful of university graduates. Its school infrastructure was almost non-existent and there was hardly anyone who had been properly trained to teach. I had joined the Physics Department of Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo in the expectation that I would help putting that department back on its feet after most of its faculty members of Portuguese origin had left the University when colonization had finally come to an end. However, instead of doing physics, I was asked, among a host of other things that had no relation whatsoever with what I came prepared for, to help create Mozambique's first post-independence generation of secondary school teachers for physics and mathematics. My discipline? No, not Physics. Why don't you do the Didactics of Physics course, the methodological issues of how to teach physics? We have others who can teach physics. As I am someone who finds it difficult to say 'no' I complied.
The discipline of Didactics of Physics had not been taught before in this context for the simple reason that that very context had not existed before. There had been no post-independence secondary school teacher training in Mozambique. Never. So, again, I found myself in a situation in which no one would tell me what to do. I was supposed to know, but I didn't.
My first attempts at solving my problem focused on reading about what others did in similar cases: teacher training, the method part of it, in other developing countries as well as in the industrialized world. What I read seemed to make sense in the Western world, from which I came, in which a physics teacher is someone well-versed in physics who, in addition, has to learn how to interact with students and organize situations such that students attain particular personal and societal development goals that are of concern to the role that science plays in Western society. However, that role is not necessarily the same in developing countries. Besides, in Mozambique, those who were recruited into becoming physics teachers had only a very rudimentary mastery of the subject itself. This was not their fault. The conditions had not been there that would have allowed them to develop appropriate subject mastery.
As reading the canonical literature about didactics of physics didn't help me much in deciding what to do in the particular circumstances in which I found myself working, little was left but starting to experiment, going back to basics (giving up the givens and starting again from scratch), recognizing that I might have to learn as much from my students as they might, hopefully, learn from me. Knowing, also, that for them their lack of knowledge of substance was their worst methodological problem - and not the question of how to teach when you already know - my students and I found ourselves gradually engaging in the collaborative effort of reinventing didactics of physics in the particular context in which we were working. A cumbersome process? Perhaps. But in retrospect I think that the best way to transcend a discipline is by being allowed to reinvent it in context. It then is the process of reinvention that matters, rather than the discipline itself.
The result was something very interesting. Substance and method became the two inseparable sides of problems that were collaboratively identified as a relevant basis for what secondary school students could best spend their time on. After identifying those problems, my students, the teacher trainees, teamed up in small groups of four or five to work on those problems and how to teach them. Doing so in an environment with no resources - none whatsoever, I should stress - send them to the waste dump to find whatever they could to construct their own teaching apparatus and in the process ask themselves questions about how best to use it to help others discover the secrets and the beauty of how nature works.
Discipline and Beyond
In view of the brevity of the contribution I was asked to write for this Bulletin I restricted myself to merely two of my - at the time subconscious - explorations in transdisciplinarity. If I refer to them in terms of transdisciplinarity now, it is only in retrospect. At the time when I went through them I probably couldn't care less. I was merely trying to solve relevant problems, I thought.
Now that I look back, I conclude that 'merely trying to solve relevant problems' may be Condition Number 1 for the development of transdisciplinarity in the educational environment. The solution to hardly any problem is limited to a single discipline. Even less so, hardly any question that gets raised in the process of solving a problem is in the first place formulated in disciplinary terms. We break questions down in order to deal with portions of them in disciplinary terms. After we do so we have to bring the portions back together again. In fact, it would have been better had we kept a mental picture of the whole at the back of our minds while working on the detail, switching back and forth between different perspectives.
Another thought that comes up as I look back is that educating for transdisciplinarity can't be done without first of all developing disciplinarity. You can't transcend something without first being there. In fact, in my experience of doing things, particularly in educational settings, I have never given up on the value of discipline, of knowing how to do things and being rigorous and conscious in applying principles, while critically evaluating what one does. But I have learned in the process, and become more conscious of the need to, at the same time, always look beyond the boundaries of where one is and to develop the desire to always go further, to never be satisfied. If there is anything of value in the science we practice, it is that restlessness that tells us that in whatever light we see the world, it is probably never the right picture yet, there must be a perspective from beyond where we are, a perspective that is, in essence, transcurricular.Serendip