One More Note About Integrative Thinking

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By Lane Wallace

A reader sent me the following note in response to my post on innovation not being about math, but about more flexible, "integrative" thinking:


Most schools where I live seem to tout their 'integrated' curricula. It's certainly the case at every public and private school I've visited in the last few months (our son is entering kindergarten next year). Usually this integration takes the form of choosing a theme (fall harvest, civil rights, sea life, etc) and weaving it into project for each subject (art, science, history, etc). While far better than the old silo approach to class work, this integration trend strikes me as stopping short of truly encouraging integrative thinking. Perhaps the structure of the classes alone isn't enough to foster the type of innovation our country now requires. It seems like the methodology of integrated teaching ... might be just as important.

Roger Martin, the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto (whom I mentioned in the post) would agree. Some of his thoughts on the subject, from an interview I did with him last year:


Where I don't agree entirely with lots of the efforts to be multi-disciplinary is that I think you have to build a basic science of multi-disciplinarity. I've come to believe from my work on this, and on this issue in business, that we have a flawed, implicit theory about interdisciplinarity. That you can be interdisciplinary by being taught multiple disciplines and being taught critical thinking. And I think that's an excellent start, but it's not enough. 

Critical thinking is still much more based on which is the better model. I don't think you're taught to tear apart a model of marketing that's based on the basic science of psychology and a finance model that's based on the science of economics. I think it is an absolute fantasy that if you teach people critical thinking, they'll be able to think productively across models. I think [thinking across models] in and of itself is a discipline you have to learn, that's separate from what you're taught in critical thinking. I think there's a discipline, a basic science of interdisciplinarity, that's as much a discipline as neuroscience, as biology, as chemistry, as literature, as law. And I believe it can be built, and we're building it.

Obviously, there's far more on this subject that could be said, and should be discussed, but just thought I'd add a little more information/clarification about what the difference is -- at least how Martin sees it--between multidisciplinary studies and true interdisciplinarity, and critical thinking versus integrative thinking. Food for thought, as I sign off from Jim's blog on this site, and return to my own.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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