One More Note About Integrative Thinking

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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.

This post originally appeared on James Fallows's blog.

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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. Her latest book is Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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