Learning from ambiguity within an inter-disciplinary learning context

Harriet Harriss, School of the Built Environment and Eric Cassells, Business School

The paper reports on an interdisciplinary teaching and learning project, where students with distinctive professional backgrounds were challenged to address problems in mixed project teams.  It explores the potential of using ambiguity in project definition as a learning tool. 

In the last academic year at Oxford Brookes University, Economics and International Business Futures lead and Principal Lecturer Eric Cassells and Architect and Senior Lecturer Harriet Harriss have worked together to develop and implement pilot collaborations between MBA and diploma level Architecture students. The students were set collaborative assignments that tested their discipline specific knowledge equally, but also tested their individual learning capabilities particularly in relation to learning through ambiguity. This paper therefore seeks to present findings from the collaborations regarding whether ambiguity is an effective learning tool within an interdisciplinary context and whether it is better suited to some student ‘profiles’ than others.

Using a combination of qualitative questionnaires and quantitative psychometric tests, we tried to identify whether students from the two disciplines shared certain learning profile characteristics that would influence their ability to engage effectively with ambiguity and whether these differences might be discipline specific.

Theoretical alignments include Meyer and Land’s ‘threshold concepts,’ theory – which examines the development of professional knowledge within the disciplines, and in particular the issue of ‘troublesome knowledge’ and encourages learning through challenging the students pre-existing assumptions and transforming their understanding – a process which by implication requires a degree of ambiguity in order for the requisite reflection take place (2003 Meyer, Land). It also shares methodologies with Problem-Based-Learning (PBL) and with Management Theory – that advocates ambiguity as means to raise barriers to imitation and mimicry (Reed, Defillippi 1991).

The findings of this paper also raises the question as to whether these characteristics influence students’ choices about which disciplines they select to study and what that might mean for the planning, development, resourcing and teaching frameworks used within future interdisciplinary activities between the two departments.

Oxford Brookes faculties (and the students served by those faculties) represent a broad range of distinctive, traditional professional groupings.  In recent years, however, there has been much discussion in business about the growth of the horizontal (cross-functional) organization (Ostroff, 1999), and of project-based organizations (Kodama, 2007; Davies and Hobday, 2005) which demand cross-functional problem-solving and professional integration to exploit emerging combination technologies.  A practical example of that demand can be observed in bidders’ responses to the multi-billion pound “Building Schools for the Future” initiative in the UK, involving educationalists, technologists, builders, architects and business people.  It seems likely, therefore, that there will be a growing demand from employers for graduate and postgraduate recruits who are comfort.

Powerpoint presentation (4.25MB)