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Friday, July 5 • 10:45am - 11:25am
Interdisciplinarity requires stewardship of powerful knowledge

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Object of study and research question
Education is increasingly being asked to solve the world’s ‘wicked problems’, problems that have unclear boundaries and which emerge from systems of social injustice and environmental degradation. There is a strong sense that this requires an ability to work across the silos of specific disciplines which often bring very particular ways of producing knowledge. In response to such calls, a number of curriculum innovations have been put in place to ensure a focus on the ‘real world’ in ways that move to the more concrete and interdisciplinary. These innovations include problem-based learning, outcomes based learning and so on.

A core concern with such innovations is that they may ensure strong semantic gravity at the expense of access to more abstracted principles that can transcend contexts and thereby constitute ‘powerful knowledge’. The study reported on here looks at how two knowledge fields, Anatomy and Physiology, were merged to form one integrated subject, Human Biology, which was then taught to Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy students.

This study asks the question:

To what extent does the structuring of the foundational Human Biology curriculum shape students’ access to professional knowledge?

The study explored whether the organisation of the interdisciplinary foundational curriculum served the fundamental needs of the professions, and whether, as a matter of social justice, students’ access to powerful knowledge was enabled by the form that the fundamental curriculum assumed.

LCT Concepts

The study drew on two LCT concepts: Specialisation and Semantics in order to map out what was legitimated in the curricula of Anatomy and Physiology, and to then look at legitimation in the Human Biology curriculum. This entailed looking at what forms of knowledge were deemed valuable and the extent to which these were tied to specific contexts or not and the extent to which they demanded the acquisition of semantically dense terms and concepts or not. It also entailed looking at the extent to which one had to become a specific kind of knower with a particular gaze on the world in order to be considered an appropriate member of the field. By using the tools offered by Specialisation and Semantics, we were able to map the various ways in which legitimation was meted out in the curriculum and the extent to which such legitimation shifted as the integrated Human Biology curriculum came into place.

Research Design
This curriculum study at a particular Faculty of Health Sciences foregrounded the structuring, organisation and differentiation of disciplinary knowledge, and reflected a twenty-year period that included not only transitions in professional education but also extensive transformation in, and a different approach to, health delivery.
Curricular documents for a twenty-year period were analysed quantitatively and qualitatively to establish the positioning of Physiology and Anatomy before and after the disciplines merged. Teaching staff were interviewed for their understanding of what specialises the physiological and anatomical components of the Human Biology curriculum, what they considered as powerful knowledge for the professions, and who they envisaged as the knower. The degree of context-dependence for meaning-making in the different disciplinary domains and the condensation of meanings inherent in the respective practices and contexts, were analysed.

Results and conclusions
Following the merger, it was found that Anatomy is preferentially legitimated as powerful knowledge at the expense of Physiology; that the ideal of disciplinary integration is not reached, and the segmental organisation and structuring of the curriculum negatively impacted on cumulative knowledge-building and application of professional knowledge in the clinical arena. After the merger the disciplines lost their shape, and in particular the hierarchical knowledge structure of Physiology was compromised. By not having access to the necessary disciplinary knowledge structures and their associated practices, students’ ability for scaffolding and integrating knowledge into the clinical arena was constrained. The organisation of the current Human Biology curriculum is thus limited in its facilitation of cumulative learning.

Significance of study
The study shows that interdisciplinary programmes should be carefully considered, and there is an added imperative in the health professions which ultimately realise treatment of patients. If the students are combined cohorts from various professional fields, then a sound understanding of the epistemic requirements of each profession is required. Those involved in curriculum development in various fields need to take these recommendations into account to enable cumulative learning and enable epistemological access to powerful knowledge for an increasingly diverse student body.

Friday July 5, 2019 10:45am - 11:25am SAST
Room B46

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