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Cross-disciplinary courses are becoming more common in many tertiary institutions. This issue of CDTL Brief on Crossdisciplinary Teaching and Learning discusses issues that concern cross-disciplinary studies.

October 2006, Vol. 9, No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Cross-disciplinary Theories for Cross-disciplinary Teaching
Dr Mosseri Avraham
The David Azrieli School of Architecture, Faculty of the Arts
Tel Aviv University, Israel

Cross-disciplinary teaching is one of the most important and complicated issues in pedagogy characterised mainly by specialisation and the appearance of new disciplines today. In this new reality, there is a big need for courses that provide students with a wider view of lateral connections between disciplines.

When dealing with cross-disciplinary teaching, it is first necessary to clarify the distinction between disciplinary courses and cross-disciplinary courses. Disciplinary courses usually deal with a specific field of knowledge, delving relatively deep into details and micro aspects. It is more focused on a specific field of knowledge and less with the 'big picture'. On the contrary, cross-disciplinary courses deal with connections, interrelations and interactions between different fields of knowledge. These courses are more general in character and they can be called macro-courses.

These two kinds of courses are important, interdependant and interrelated. Both give students a high level of understanding. However, it is much harder to teach cross-disciplinary courses successfully because:

a. Cross-disciplinary courses require teachers with a broad interdisciplinary knowledge. In this era of specialisation, it is relatively rare to find people who have studied laterally and are able to think in a cross-disciplinary manner.

b. Academic institutions traditionally encourage disciplinary research. The low number of cross-disciplinary researches compared to disciplinary researches is an impor tant indicator of the situation despite the growing tendency towards more cross-disciplinary research.

c. Cross-disciplinary theories are rare and existing ones are not well-assimilated into the area of teaching.

d. Objectively, it is much complicated to teach crossdisciplinary courses.

In an era characterised by rapid accumulation of new information, cross-disciplinary theories can help teachers and students control, manage and understand large amount of information better. Such theories can also contribute to the creation of new systems and processes with cross-disciplinary characteristics.

Few cross-disciplinary theories have been developed throughout history. Amongst these theories, it seems that the system theory by Bertalanfy (1968) (and others who later developed this theory) is the most fundamental one that can be turned into a basic tool for developing cross-disciplinary understanding. I shall discuss how the potential of the system theory and its developments can help in teaching and understanding cross-disciplinary thinking.

The system theory is an interdisciplinary theory that analyses the theoretical and practical properties of systems from a cross-disciplinary point of view. The theory integrates principles and concepts from many fields of research such as biology, chemistry, thermodynamics, engineering, social sciences, ecology among others. It deals with the definition and analysis of systems, typology of different systems and behaviour of systems in different conditions and environments. The theory also stresses the relations between the parts and offers a holistic perspective. Terminologies of interdisciplinary properties (e.g. complexity, stability, entropy, energy, time, feedback, dynamics of systems) are introduced and analysed. It is important to note that the applications of system theory can be found today in many fields and activities (e.g. Beer, 2004; Mosseri, 2005).

The system theory can be included in crossdisciplinary courses or cross-disciplinary knowledge. It is important to note that this kind of knowledge is important especially for interdisciplinary professions like medicine, architecture, ecology, town planning and others.

One of the most important questions in using the system theory is: when is the right time in the teaching process to introduce this kind of knowledge? Should it be given at the beginning or the end of the studies? Past experience shows that each alternative has its own advantages. Exposure to such knowledge at the beginning of the studies gives students an overall introduction and crossdisciplinary vision at an early stage without specific knowledge. Introducing system theory into at the end of the studies is also advantageous as students would already have possessed a relatively large amount of knowledge and it is then much easier for them to develop cross-disciplinary thinking. However, the problem here is that the 'big picture' is only achieved at the end of the teaching process. A combination of these alternatives can be a possible solution.

The system theory and its importance in crossdisciplinary teaching need to be further investigated in the future based on the initial ideas introduced in this article.


Beer, S. (2004). 'Man in Garrulous Silence'. Kybernetes: The International Journal of Systems and Cybernetics. Vol. 33 , Nos. 3-4, pp. 809-827.

Bertalanfy, L.V. (1968). General System Theory. New York: George Braziller.

Mosseri, A. (2005). 'Integration of Science and Art in Architectural Studies in the Information Era'. In Kungolos, A.G.; Brebbia, C.A., Beriatos, E. (Eds.), Sustainable Development and Planning II, Vol. 2, pp. 1401-1410. Bologna: Wit Press.

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